Asian Cinema: The Naked Island and Kuroneko

Two classic films from Onibaba director Kaneto Shindo arrive on Blu-ray. Dan takes a look at The Naked Island and Kuroneko...

Without question, Kaneto Shindo’s best-known film is his chilling 1964 masterpiece Onibaba. Frequently listed as one of the greatest horror films ever made, this tale of a murderous wife and daughter in feudal Japan has long been available in the UK on VHS, DVD and now Blu-ray, and stands as a landmark of Japanese cinema. But what of Shindo’s other films? The director’s death last year – at the grand age of 100 – has led to resurgence in interest in his work, and this week Masters Of Cinema release two of his other classics in gorgeous new Blu-ray editions.

The Naked Island (1961)

The Naked Island was the prolific Shindo’s 15th film, but for a while it looked like it might his last. Despite the acclaim of movies such as 1952’s Children Of Hiroshima, the production company he co-owned was close to bankruptcy and Shindo was forced to channel his own money into finishing the film. The shoot itself was extremely difficult; production mostly took place outside, frequently on water or up steep hills, requiring the small crew to lug heavy equipment and endure extremely varied weather conditions.  

It is somehow apt then that the resulting film is a look at the perseverance of the human spirit in times of extreme hardship. The movie spans a year in the life of a poor family, who exist by farming and fishing on a tiny Japanese island. Every day the husband and wife must scale the imposing crags of the island, carrying pales of water to nourish the few crops that are growing at the top. In intimate, unhurried detail, Shindo details the daily grind of their life, and shows how these simple people deal with the tragedy that their situation inevitably brings.

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The director stated that he wanted The Naked Island to work a “cinematic poem”, and so made the bold decision to omit all dialogue from it. This is not a silent film – the natural ambient sound of the island and its surroundings – wildlife, waves, rain – provide tremendous atmosphere. But by focusing entirely on the actions of his characters rather than their words, Shindo is able to convey the monotony of their lives, the daily struggle that revolves around the ritual of survival. The few moments of levity – the father playing with his sons, the boys catching a large fish – come as blessed relief for both the characters and the audience.

Which is not to say The Naked Island is a difficult watch. Some of the early scenes, as the couple trudge wearily up and down the hill, are deliberately slow and maybe even a little boring, but the way Shindo (plus the performances of Nobuko Otowa and Taiji Tonoyama) draws the viewer into their lives is extraordinary. The life-changing event of the final third has real power – not only because of what happens, but also in the bluntly realistically way it is portrayed. Life must go on, no matter what, when there are mouths to feed.

The Naked Island is a beautiful looking film, especially on Masters Of Cinema’s new Blu-ray, which is leagues ahead of their previous DVD in terms of representing the natural beauty of the photography. The sequences set on water are particularly striking, as cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda exploits the contrast between the sky, water and surrounding islands to stunning effect. Ultimately, The Naked Island proved a much-needed international success for Shindo, ensuring the survival of his company and leading him onto an equally fascinating second decade of filmmaking.

Kuroneko (1968)

Four years after Onibaba, Shindo returned to horror for Kuroneko, a quietly unnerving ghost story. Like that earlier film, Kuroneko focuses on a mother and daughter and the terrible fate that befalls the samurai who cross their path. But while Onibaba’s protagonists were essentially the aggressors, here they are victims, forced to carry out their murderous deeds through powers beyond their control. Yone and her daughter-in-law Shige are simple farming folk, struggling to maintain a living while waiting for Yone’s son and Shige husband Gintoki to return home from the war that is ravaging the land. One day they are visited by a group of samurai, who rob and rape them, leaving them to die in their burning house. Next morning their bodies are visited by a black cat, who licks their wounds clean. Yone and Shige continue to inhabit the earth, but no longer as innocent women, but as vengeful feline spirits, who live in the woodland and lure samurai back their home before tearing their throats out.

The cat is of course as old a horror icon as the genre itself; Japanese horror in particular has a special place for them, and such is their status there’s no need to explain why this feline creature is able to turn Yone and Shige into blood-drinking spectres. Kuroneko (literally ‘black cat’) is an incredibly striking film – it’s more eerie than scary, but by keeping things simple Shindo is able to produce some memorably haunting sequences. All it takes are small, sudden surprises – Shige seeming to somersault out of the darkness above the head of a samurai, or the flash of an arm which is anything other than human – to set the viewer on edge. The first time a samurai is lured back to the women’s house on the unspoken promise of sex is both a funny and unnerving sequence, as they get him drunk on sake then proceed to kill him. Shindo makes weird, abrupt editing decisions and uses sparse, repetitive percussion to further the feeling of otherworldly fright.

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Shinto was always a political filmmaker, even when directing pure genre pieces like this. As in many of the best horror movies, here he weaves in socio-political subtexts, from the way the war has ruined the lives of pretty much every character to the status of the women in the film. On one hand we have the simpering whores who populate Raiko’s palace, and on the other, the angry, bloodthirsty lady-ghosts, determined to settle the score against the war-crazed men who have ruled their lives for too long.

Kuroneko is not a film to reveal too much, too quickly – even at 90 minutes, Shindo is quite happy to construct long, almost silent sequences with the intention of generating atmosphere rather than moving the story along. Like those ghosts that disappear into the darkness, the movie is intangible and mysterious, striking the perfect balance between beauty and horror.

The Naked Island and Kuroneko were released on Blu-ray by Masters Of Cinema on 24 June 2013.

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