Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Island

Among the directors featured in this series, Kaneto Shindo is probably the most unfamiliar to international audiences. Born in a small village outside of Hiroshima, he began working in the film industry in 1934. Over the next six years he toiled in various capacities as a technician at a small studio called Shinkyo. Throughout this period his aspiration was to become script writer. He finally realized his ambition in 1941 when the studio used one of his scripts for a B film. After writing scripts for a few more films, he was drafted into the navy.

Upon returning to Japan in 1946, he entered the script department at Shochiku Studios. At this point, his career finally took off when he was assigned script writing duties for Kosaburo Yoshimura's 1947 triumph, The Ball at the House of Anjo, which was heralded as the best picture of the year by Kinema Junpo. By 1951 he was able to parlay his success as a script writer into an opportunity to direct his first film, Tale of a Loving Wife, a commercial and critical hit. Aside from marking Shindo's directorial debut, the film is also noteworthy as the beginning of his personal and professional collaboration with the actress Nobuko Otowa. The two married shortly thereafter and she subsequently starred in almost all of his films.

With a contract at a major studio and a popular star for a wife, Shindo could have easily settled into a mainstream, successful career. Instead, though, he left the studio and affiliated himself with a group called the Modern Film Association, which consisted of artists and film makers who felt limited by the constraints of the commercial film industry. He immediately tested the freedom of this new working environment with his next work, 1952's Children of Hiroshima. Made immediately after the US Occupation, it was the first Japanese film to address the effects of the atomic bomb. Despite US efforts to pressure the Japanese government to ban the film, it was released to widespread critical acclaim.

Although Shindo on occasion returned to the major studios to make commercial fare, his heart was in the independent, more personal projects that he directed in association with the Film Alliance. The Island, which was first released on November 23, 1960, belongs to this latter category. The film records the struggles and simple pleasures of a farming family on a small island in the Inland Sea. Inspired by the experimentation of the European New Wave and other film-as-art movements, Shindo set out to create what he referred to as a cinematic poem. Foregoing dialogue, the minamalist film evokes emotion through striking imagery, repeated actions, ambient sounds, and Hikaru Hayashi's simple score.

Financing the film with his own money, Shindo, Otowa, and the rest of the cast and crew, all of whom worked without payment, spent almost two months on the island, during which time they came to embrace the serenity of the isolated environment. This commitment to the place and its people is evident in the dignified manner in which they depict the film's characters and their way of life.

The experimental film was hailed by critics both in Japan and abroad. It was feted at film festivals the world over, winning the Grand Prize at the 1961 Moscow International Film Festival, where it was praised as a tribute to the human spirit.

Since the release of The Island Shindo has continued to surprise and delight cineasts with his idiosyncratic works. Noteworthy films include The Demon (1964), Black Cat from the Grove (1968), Tree Without Leaves (1986), Strange Tales from East of the River (1993), and The Bit Player (2000), his award-winning biography of Taiji Tonoyama, the actor who portrays the husband in The Island. With his most recent film, 2004's The Owl, Shindo entered the record books as the oldest working film director in the world.

Shindo at the 2004 Moscow Film Festival

Nobuko Otowa in The Island

Otowa in The Demon

Kiwako Taichi in Black Cat from the Grove


Blogger Jim Reichert said...

I just got the Black Cat from the Grove DVD. If it's interesting, I might use it for my ghost class.

May 22, 2007 at 9:00 AM  

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