Director Kaneto Shindo’s documentary-like, dialogue-free portrayal of daily struggle is a work of stunning visual beauty and invention. The international breakthrough for one of Japan’s most innovative filmmakers—who went on to make such other marvelous movies as Onibaba and Kuroneko—The Naked Island follows a family whose home is on a tiny, remote island off the coast of Japan. They must row a great distance to another shore, collect water from a well in buckets, and row back to their island—a nearly backbreaking task essential for the survival of these people and their land. Featuring a phenomenal modernist score by Hikaru Hayashi, this is a truly hypnotic experience, with a rhythm unlike that of any other film.
Kaneto Shindo is one of Japan's most influential and most regarded filmmakers. With 'Onibaba', 'Kuroneko', and 'Children of Hiroshima' on his resume, you immediately know that Shindo is one of the greats. Back in 1960, Shindo made a very simple film called 'The Naked Island' that was the winner of the Grand Prix at the Moscow International Film Festival and was even nominated for Best Film at the British Academy Awards.
What's unusual about this film is that it is almost devoid of dialogue. There might be just a couple of words spoken through the entire 96-minute run time, but what Shindo does, is tell an intimate story of joy and sorrow through his camera about a family so well, that we instantly know everything about each character without the use of words. 'The Naked Island' is a beautiful film, shot in black and white. I do wish there was an option to watch this in color, due to the exotic locations on the sea and the beautiful islands that surround it, but I digress.
'The Naked Island' is also a very lonely island for a family we follow, consisting of a father, a mother, and their two young boys. This family are the only people on this beautiful island, and they must survive by growing their crops. The problem that this family faces on normal days is that the mother and the father must travel to a bigger neighboring island to get clean fresh water to drink and feed their crops with.
So several times a day, this couple carries large wooden buckets up this beautiful island hill. It's a routine that seems as grueling as it is rewarding. Meanwhile, the children fish and one of them even attends school on the neighboring island. It's a simple life that repeats itself everyday, which Shindo perfectly captures every bit of detail from his cautious and elegant camera shots. I believe Shindo wanted to show how a family who lives a simple life like this in a beautiful setting, deals with joy and sorrow, which brings the film to its two biggest moments.
Joy comes when the kids catch a giant fish and the family sells it so they can eat at a nice restaurant on the other island. Sorrow comes when tragedy strikes the family, but both emotions and events show that this family must keep up with their routine in order to stay alive, meaning they can't take too long to take pleasure in the finer moments or even the grief stricken moments. That's what makes 'The Naked Island' such a beautiful film both visually and internally, and all without the use of language.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
‘The Naked Island’ comes with a 50GB Blu-ray Disc from Criterion and is Region A Locked. There is a Criterion booklet inside with and essay and information on the transfer and film. The disc is housed in a clear, hard plastic case with the spine number 811.
'The Naked Island' comes with a 1080p HD transfer presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio. According to the Criterion booklet, this is a new high definition film transfer that was created on a Spirit 4K DataCine from a new 35mm print struck from the original camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, and splices were manually removed as well. Needless to say, this is the best this film has ever looked, but again, I wish there was an option for color to take in the natural beauty of the islands and sea.
There is a great range of grays and whites on display that never bleed over one another. Everything is well-balanced and looks excellent. The detail is quite sharp and vivid as well, showcasing some great closeups of the plant life and of the characters. Wide shots of the island never go soft either. There is a nice layer of grain that keeps with the filmic quality too. Black levels are rich and full. There were no major issues with the video quality here, leaving this presentation with top marks.
This release comes with a Japanese LPCM 1.0 mix with optional English subtitles. Again, there is barely any dialogue in the film, so the sound is mostly the elegant and gracious score that always compliments the amazing scenery and photography of each scene.
There are some sound effects and ambient noises of island life, but I wouldn't expect too much of a bang here. It sounds realistic and light throughout. Each noise is clear and well-balanced, and when the dialogue does happen to come through, it's always clear. Lastly, there are no pops, cracks, hiss, or high shrills, leaving this audio presentation with top marks for what it is.
Audio Commentary - This commentary track was recorded for a previous release of the film back in 2000, and has director Kaneto Shindo and composer Hikaru Hayashi, discussing the making of the film. They talk about the themes, shooting on such a small budget and on location, and the use of music in the film. This is in Japanese with English subtitles, and is well worth the listen.
Interview with Akira Mizuta Lippit (HD, 18 Mins.) - A new interview that was conducted for this release with film scholar Akira Mizuta Lippit, who discusses Japanese cinema, its filmmakers, and the social and political climate of this time period for film. Akira also talks about the production history of 'The Naked Island', as well as the life and career of Shindo.
Kaneto Shindo (HD, 8 Mins.) - An intro and greeting from Shindo from a 2011 retrospective in New York on his life and career, which actor Benicio Del Toro put together. Shindo talks about his inspirations and working on the film.
Interview with Benicio Del Toro (HD, 8 Mins.) - This interview was shot in 2016 for this release and has Del Toro discussing the life and career of Shindo, this film and particular, and how he got to meet him before he died. Del Toro also talks about how this film impacted his life.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 Mins.) - Trailer for the film.
Criterion Booklet - This is a foldout illustrated booklet that delivers cast, crew, and transfer information, along with an essay on the film and Shindo from Haden Guest.
'The Naked Island' might be one of Kaneto Shindo's best works. It's a simple and beautiful film about a Japanese family just trying to survive on their island, and all the joys and sorrow that comes with that. The film is as poetic as it is endearing and tragic, about how life just goes on. It's one of cinema's rare gems. The video and audio presentations are both excellent and the bonus features are all worth watching. Criterion has knocked it out of the park with this release. A must own.