The Sound of Waves
The Island/Hadaka no shima aka The Naked Island could be depressing were it not for stark poetry of conception and realization by cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda. The work that brought prolific director-screenwriter Kaneto Shindō to the world stage --1961 Grand Prize at Moscow -- it is one of three of his appearing with a like number by each of seven other filmmakers at Lincoln Center’s Japanese Screen Classics: In Honor of Madame Kawakita, a collection already shown or to be shown at ten venues circling the globe.
A quiet cult classic that has not achieved the wide public acclaim of others in the series, it features intermittent spare flute and string score (Hikaru Hayashi); footfalls, murmur of rain, wavelets, oars, water poured; quacking ducks but no seabirds; mere seconds of song; unnecessary monosyllable titles for nature’s seasons; a truncated wail of grief -- but not a single word spoken. Quiet is exactly right. Sociopolitical conditions are implied through visuals instead of coming imbedded in maudlin voiced complaints about the harshness, unfairness or indifference of Life.
Sources list names for the four characters, but they cannot emerge in the film and, indeed, are purposely irrelevant in this tale of animal existence on “the far side of privation.” Simply the mother, father, two young sons -- Toyo, Senta, Taro, Jiro (Nobuko Otowa, Taiji Tonoyama, Shinji Tanaka, Masanori Horimoto) -- scratch out the barest of farming subsistence on a tiny unspecified islet off an unidentified fishing village (outside sources, again, meaninglessly supply “west of Japan” and “Inland Sea”). A monk or perhaps landlord, a monk priest, a fishmonger, country doctor, teacher and her students have their screen frames but are equally without names and words.
Why the family remains where “the soil is dry,” rocky, poor and unforgiving, is not broached. Presumably they have been here forever. Peasants are tied to particular patches, so despite unbearable pain silent in father’s grimace and shocking in the silence pierced by mother’s anguish, they will remain till the end of life’s time (and beyond), for a moment’s defiance at unkind fate subsides into rote compliance. Life begins, and ends, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Granted only the lowest level of the Faulknerian consolation of enduring, the four live within the elements. Shot from below, their faces are against sky, clouds or featureless overcast. The earth demands eternal backbreaking care with primitive tools for their paltry crops, only to receive their human dust in the end. With motorized ships passing, the sea isolates them, to be traversed a few times daily in their single-stern-oar boat; fresh water is gathered on all trips to the village, two wood buckets arching shoulder poles taken back across and walked up rocks and earth steps.
At a bare home shown mostly from outside, and that partially, the precious water is dippered out plant by plant, to sink at once into thirsty earth, or poured into a storage container. Labor-intensive everything is by hand, threshing to grinding to carrying heavy burlap bags as what seem offerings at a temple. The simplest of respites are ecstasy: the older son running with his backpack from boat to school and back or the two boys helping each other, an upright bath in a barrel of heated water; a dressed-up ferry trip to sell a fish, watch a shop-window TV, eat in a restaurant.
So repetitious is such existence that, like them, the audience grows to know every step of the path upwards and scenes appear repeated as husband and wife trudge the animal- and plant-life-giving liquid to domestic and crop use. Margin for error miniscule, when mother slips and spills a bucket father grounds her with one slap, instinctive, instantaneous, without anger and, however today’s politically correct will wince, accepted by her.
This acceptance reflects more than tradition in illustrating the near dehumanization of living right on the edge. The actors and characters’ dignity and the filmmaker’s tenderness for them, make it an error to question whether such lives are worth the living, so close to the so-called brutes like the goat whose chomping is intercut with the family’s chopsticking food from bowls held at the mouth.
The finest of lines divides survival here from disaster, where an impartial nature acts and, because of their isolation, brings about the unthinkable. This, too, is borne, and when in her kimono she rushes away in what seems suicidal hysteria, it is actually to pay maternal-familial homage with one of two treasured swords.
Though distressing, The Island lovingly enfolds the unnamed family and, panning upward, outward and around the barren outcrop in the water, their unnamed isle of sorrow and joy, as well. Far from falling, they and it rise with grace from the sea.
(Released by Zenith International Films; not rated by MPAA.)