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Real and slow: The poetics and politics of The Naked Island



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AC 29 (2) pp. 261–273 Intellect Limited 2018
Asian Cinema
Volume 29 Number 2
© 2018 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/ac.29.2.261_1
Kyoto University
Real and slow: The poetics
and politics of The Naked
A seminal film that presaged the 1960s boom of independent cinema in Japan,
Shind Kaneto’s The Naked Island (1960) also marked its director’s breakthrough
to the international market. This article examines how the film’s depiction of primi-
tive agrarian life, particularly the ‘authentic’ labouring bodies, relates to the notions
of neorealism and ‘slow cinema’. Tracing its international influences, a comparison
to Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1934) reveals how ‘poetical licence’ is an integral part
of documentary film with ethnographical aspirations. Working outside the restrictive
nature of the Japanese studio system, The Naked Island consolidated the direc-
tor’s stripped-down and self-sufficient methods of independent filmmaking. After
winning the Grand Prize at the Moscow International Film Festival, it also brought
him a considerable following amidst the geopolitical tensions of the Cold War.
裸の島 (The Naked Island) (1960) written and directed by Shind Kaneto
新藤兼人 (1912–2012), an experimental independent film without dialogue,
has the reputation of having saved its director’s career from abruptly ending.
It is also one of those films perhaps better known outside of Japan, after
having initially succeeded in the international festival circuit. The present
film festivals
independent film
Japanese cinema
Shind Kaneto
slow cinema
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Lauri Kitsnik
262 Asian Cinema
1. While the names of
the couple and their
children are given in
the script as Senta,
Toyo, Taro¯ and Jiro
respectively, one might
wonder why Shindo¯
bothered with the
names at all as there is
no reference to them
(save for Taro¯ ’s grave
marker) within the film
2. The Naked Island
was Shindo¯s first
collaboration with the
classical composer
Hayashi Hikaru
(1931–2012), noted
for his advocacy of
opera, who was to
provide soundtracks for
most of the director’s
subsequent films.
3. Matthew Flanagan
(2008) has identified
a trend towards a
‘cinema of walking’
but this relates more
readily to leisurely
rather than labourious
acts of covering
distances by foot.
article examines the film’s production and reception contexts and traces its
parallels in world cinema. The film’s repetitive images, overlong sequences
and a focus on labouring bodies bear some similarities to what is called ‘slow
cinema’ and I draw from this notion to extrapolate the film’s intentions, influ-
ences and effects on the spectator. Placing The Naked Island against Robert
J. Flaherty’s documentary Man of Aran (1934), I also speculate on the func-
tion of ‘poetic licence’ in ethnographic film. The aim of this article is to exam-
ine how and why Shind ’s stylistic choices in The Naked Island are linked to
the politics of independent filmmaking, which has implications for both film
production in Japan and its worldwide reception.
The first half hour of The Naked Island, the writer-director Shind Kaneto’s
international breakthrough, consists almost entirely of an extended sequence
depicting the everyday reality of a poor peasant family living on a tiny islet in
the Seto Inland Sea that separates the Japanese main island from Shikoku.
Devoid of a clear water source of their own, a man and a woman1 are collect-
ing water from a neighbouring island and carrying it in wooden buckets
on yokes first to their rowing boat, and then, after reaching the island, up
a steep slope all the way to the field to water sweet potato plants. There is
no dialogue, only natural sounds and extradiegetic music2 and shots of the
perspiring bodies of the couple and the same gestures of walking, rowing and
watering the plants repeated over and over again. Apart from a visit to the
nearby town of Onomichi and the death of their eldest son, which introduces
drama into the film, there is little by way of plot and character development.
As if to underline the cyclical logic of this miniature world, the film closes
with another lengthy sequence of the couple going through the exact same
motions as in the beginning.
The film’s most infamous and salient feature is its lack of dialogue, a
choice that the director felt compelled to explain on numerous occasions.
Shind emphasized that his intention was neither to display nostalgia for
silent cinema nor downplay the dramatic content, but quite to the contrary,
to make the human struggle that is at the core of the film all the more visi-
ble by focusing entirely on visual storytelling without the help (or hindrance)
of words, save for a few titles that appear to denote the story’s setting and
the changing of the seasons (Shind 1994: 154). While the decision to eschew
dialogue is what makes The Naked Island stand out and alone in Shind ’s
oeuvre, the director used the images of toiling and sweating bodies to similar
effect in a number of films. I have argued elsewhere (Kitsnik 2014) that
employing repeated gestures of labour in duration that clearly exceeds such
devices as establishing shots can in fact be identified as a major motif in
Shind ’s directing career.
There is an undeniably dynamic choreography and sheer visual beauty
in these images shot in crisp black and white and edited to include a variety
of frames and angles, but the slow and steady pace of the depicted manual
labour is certainly devised to have an excruciating effect upon the viewer.3
Looked at today, The Naked Island also seems to feed readily into the
popular perception of Asian cinema (with the obvious exception of action
genres) as being somehow inherently slow-paced and/or uneventful. At the
same time, the notion of ‘slow cinema’, characterized by ‘the employment
of (often extremely) long takes, de-centred and understated modes of
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Real and slow    263
4. The uncovered print
was missing its first and
last reel, amounting to
only 93 of the original
142 minutes. Another,
119-minute version
of the film, similarly
missing the last reel,
was discovered in
Russia around the turn
of the millennium.
5. There is a link between
the two directors, as
Shindo¯ , a fledgling
screenwriter, was
assigned to work
with Uchida Tomu
(1898–1970) on a film in
Manchuria in the early
1940s. The project was
cancelled after several
rewrites, and Tomu,
who had stayed, was
taken prisoner at the
end of war, returning
to Japan only in 1954,
where he commenced
directing and reached
a late career peak with
films such as the highly
acclaimed 飢餓海峡 A
(Fugitive from the Past)
6. Incidentally, the
late 1930s in Japan
witnessed a sudden
proliferation of films
that featured the word
tsuchi (earth, soil) in
their titles.
storytelling, and a pronounced emphasis on quietude and the everyday’
(Flanagan 2008), has gained ‘unprecedented critical valence in the last
decade’ (de Luca and Barradas Jorge 2015: 1) within film studies, and has
proved effective when examining the works of such contemporary auteurs
of world cinema as Abbas Kiarostami, Béla Tarr and Tsai Ming-liang 蔡明亮.
Within this critical framework, several attempts have also been made to
trace cinematic slowness back to a string of European modernist and exper-
imental films of the postwar era, starting with Italian neorealism, while we
have been warned that such an evolutionary approach ‘legitimizes a history
of film style that is decidedly teleological and also Eurocentric’ (de Luca and
Barradas Jorge 2015: 9).
While the neorealist intentions and influences of The Naked Island cannot
be denied, there is indeed an alternative lineage that includes both Japanese
and international precedents stretching back to the prewar years. In the film
Earth (内田吐夢 Uchida, 1939), there is a sequence, strikingly similar to scenes
in The Naked Island, where a peasant couple is carrying buckets of water on
yokes for a lengthy distance to water their plants. While Earth, long thought to
have been entirely lost until a partial print was discovered in a German archive
in 1968,4 was not available at the time of the making of The Naked Island, it
is tempting to speculate whether Shind might have alluded to and in fact
recreated the image of dry soil being watered from this earlier film.5 On the
other hand, Earth was made amidst the general political climate that sought
to emphasize the agricultural substratum of the nation, which certainly helped
to bring it instant critical acclaim, demonstrated by the fact of being chosen
as the best Japanese film of 1939 by the annual Kinema Junp critics’ poll.6
Shot on location in northern Japan over the course of a year, partly to capture
the changing of the seasons, Earth was truly exceptional at a time when the
Japanese film industry used to churn out features on an almost weekly basis.
This much-delayed production could only have been accomplished in a safe
environment of studio production, something that, as we shall see later, was
not at all available for Shind .7
Figure 1: The bucket carrying scene from The Naked Island.
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Lauri Kitsnik
264 Asian Cinema
7. Similarly to Uchida,
Shindo¯ wanted to
capture the changing
of the seasons in The
Naked Island, but due
to time constraints, the
sequences depicting
two different seasonal
festivals were both
filmed in July 1960 in
the course of only two
From both a stylistic and a structural point of view, The Naked Island is still
too fast and dramatic to be considered as a typical example of slow cinema.
However, what brings it somewhat close to this cinematic mode – besides
its durational effect on audiences – are certain shared thematic preoccu-
pations that gravitate towards depicting marginal rural communities and
employing an approach akin to that of documentary film. The Naked Island
was certainly successful in tricking its international audience (who unlike
the domestic ones would not have recognized the well-known actors
Otowa Nobuko and Tonoyama Taiji as the film’s leads) into believing
that they were watching an ethnographic film that authentically depicts
agricultural life at the margins of contemporary Japan. In fact, Shind points
out that the members of the international press, who interviewed him at
the Moscow International Film Festival where The Naked Island received the
Grand Prize, were all convinced that the actors were amateur performers
(Shind 1994: 137).
Karl Schoonover, writing on slow cinema, has reminded us how corpo-
reality is very much part of neorealism as understood through a Bazinian
lens, for which ‘potency resides in using nonprofessionals in key roles […]
neorealism accrues its value through the performance of amateur bodies’
Figure 2: The bucket carrying scene from Earth.
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Real and slow 265
8. An anecdote has
it that in 東京物語
(Tokyo Story) (1953),
Ozu Yasujiro¯ based
the language spoken
by the grandparents
from the small town
Onomichi on that
of Shindo¯ , whom he
had befriended when
both still worked at
the Sho¯ chiku studios
(Ishizaka 1995: 148).
9. See Kitsnik (2014)
for how Shindo¯ has
recycled the famous
montage sequence
from 原爆の子 (Children
of Hiroshima) (1952) in
his subsequent work.
10. I have not been able
to determine whether
and when Shindo¯ saw
Man of Aran, which
premiered in Japan in
(2012: 69). For Bazin, it is the bodies of amateur actors in films such as
Luchino Visconti’s La terra trema (1948) that lend credibility to the claims of
realism and create a site of identification (and exhaustion) for the audience.
La terra trema could be seen as yet another point of reference and influ-
ence for The Naked Island, although it is a very different film in both intent
and execution. Depicting an attempted revolt among the fishing commu-
nity in rural southern Italy, its explicit political content is displayed by way
of extended debates on the realities of low-paid labour among the workers.
While being noted for his advocacy of Visconti’s work, Bazin quipped that
the director’s ‘disinclination to sacrifice anything to drama has one obvious
and serious consequence: La Terra Trema bores the public’ (Bazin 2005: 45).
Schoonover has suggested that what is at work in both neorealism and slow
cinema is a ‘labour of viewing’, in which the bodies of the spectators are put
through a physical ordeal simply by the experience of watching these images
(Schoonover 2012: 68).
While extreme labour depicted in The Naked Island is matched by the effort
taken by the audiences, the parallels do not end here. Shind has admitted
to putting the professional actors through considerable hardship during the
shooting of the film in an attempt to tease an ‘authentic’ performance out of
them. The excessive bucket-carrying even resulted in the female lead, Otowa
Nobuko 乙羽信子, getting her skin peeled off in layers several times (Shind
and Hayashi 2000). The two actors could also be described as somewhat
atypical of Japanese stars of the day: Otowa praised by Shind for looking
like as a common Japanese woman, and Tonoyama Taiji 殿山泰司, a self-
proclaimed supporting player (三文役者), a character actor with very unusual
facial features. If realism is invested in bodies, it should also be noted that
Shind ’s own rugged appearance has often been described as more befit-
ting of a common labourer or a fisherman than a filmmaker (Yamagiwa 1961:
51). Looked at in this way, the body of the director, who, while based in
Tokyo, never managed to lose his thick local accent from western Japan, itself
becomes a site of authenticity.8
Such drive for (or play with) authenticity certainly feeds into a temptation
to regard The Naked Island as an ethnographic film or a kind of documentary.
Joan Mellen is only one among many scholars who have called it a semi-docu-
mentary (1975: 74). This view seems appropriate because in a number of films,
Shind has merged fiction and documentary film styles, often by re-enacting
historical events. Subsequently, such scenes have sometimes ended up being
used by the director as documentary footage.9 Shind also directed a docu-
mentary, らくがき黒板 (Scribbling Blackboard) (1959), just before embarking
on the production of The Naked Island. This film about a primary school in
Mihara, a coastal town just miles away from Sukunejima where The Naked
Island was shot, actually presented Shind with an opportunity to make prep-
arations for the subsequent project.
Any kind of narrative filmmaking, including documentary, necessitates some
poetic licence. Robert J. Flaherty, commonly considered the father of docu-
mentary film, famously said that ‘[s]ometimes you have to lie. One often has
to distort a thing to catch its true spirit’ (Barsam 1988: 118). In fact, Flaherty’s
silent film Man of Aran (1934) has remarkable similarities to The Naked Island,
and could be seen as a precursor, if not a direct influence.10 At any rate, both its
07_AC_29.2_Kitsnik_261-273.indd 265 11/6/18 2:16 PM
Lauri Kitsnik
266 Asian Cinema
11. Similar criticism has
been laid on Man of
Aran’s celebrated shark
hunting sequence
for which people
were brought in from
Scotland to teach this
‘forgotten tradition’ to
the local fishermen.
insular setting and approach to material are highly informative in comparison
to the choices that Shind made in his depiction of agrarian life. Man of Aran
depicts the seemingly premodern living conditions and daily routines of a
fishermen’s community on an island (Inishmore) off the west coast of Ireland.
Importantly, Man of Aran upon its release provoked disputes about the nature
of documentary film and ‘its reputation today rests as much on the debate
and controversies that it raises as it does on Flaherty’s aesthetic achievement’
(McLoone 2005: 51).
What accounts for perhaps the most striking resemblance between the
two films is their respective agricultural premise: in The Naked Island it is the
absence of a clear water source that necessitates retrieving it from another
island, while the issue in Man of Aran is the lack of soil for growing pota-
toes. Apparently, a farming family has to look for what little they can find in
crevices in the rocky ground, and then drag and carry it to the field. By way
of another parallel, the Irish are here identified with their staple sustenance
much like the poor Japanese in The Naked Island are associated with sweet
potato, rather than rice, which is meant for the wealthier classes.
At the same time, the existence of the type of potato farming depicted
in Man of Aran has been denied by the critics and Flaherty accused of
fabrication.11 Shind , for his part, has readily admitted that The Naked Island
is not a film about farming or even an accurate depiction of agrarian life. In a
Figure 3: The potato growing scene from Man of Aran.
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Real and slow 267
commentary track recorded for the ‘Masters of Cinema’ DVD of the film, the
director relates that
In fact you shouldn’t really water the plants in the full sun like this.
The soil will just dry out. […] I know that well because I come from a
farming family. That’s why I could do it. It would have been strange if
I’d done it this way without knowing that. That’s what I wanted to do
[it]. Watering the plants when the sun shines means that you water the
spirit. And that’s how I decided to use the dry land to express this.
(Shind and Hayashi 2000)
Underlining his personal knowledge and background, Shind also playfully
engages with the alienation and ignorance of contemporary audiences to
create this stylized version of farming. Shind is exaggerating for dramatic
impact and in so doing provides a commentary on how far Japan has
developed from being a predominantly agricultural nation to becoming an
industrial economy.
If the deliberate inaccuracy on Shind ’s part was having the farmers water
plants under intense sunlight, what Flaherty has been accused of by scholars
is his refusal to show the scope of social inequality on the island. When the
camera pans from the cliffs to show the village, it stops halfway not to reveal the
well-cultivated fields of the more affluent inhabitants of Aran. Richard Barsam
points out Flaherty’s apparent obliviousness to all matters political, such as
the exploitation of Irish tenants by the absentee British and Irish landlords
and the effects of the great depression of the 1930s on the islands (Barsam
1988: 67). By omitting the possibility of making a social commentary, Flaherty
depoliticizes the content of this film. Barsam adds that ‘Flaherty’s subjective
view of reality – his “making it all up” – has a romantic basis, idealizing the
simple, natural, and even nonexistent life’ (Barsam 1988: 116). On the other
hand, John Goldman, the editor of Man of Aran, is emphatic in saying that the
film ‘was not a documentary, it was not intended to be a documentary […] it
was a piece of poetry’ (Stoney and Brown 1978).
More strongly, the Marxist critic Ralph Bond wrote at the time Man of
Aran’s release that ‘we are more concerned with what Flaherty has left out
than with what he has put in […] Flaherty would have us believe that there is
no class struggle on Aran despite ample evidence to the contrary’ (Bond 1934:
246). In contrast, the leftist Japanese film critic Uriu Tadao notes that
what I saw [in The Naked Island], was a prototype of the labour of work-
ing Japanese who, with their backs on the verge of breaking, have
since the Meiji era to this day supported Japan’s capitalist development
and industry in the sense that the foreigners and the Japanese ruling
class praise that ‘Japanese are industrious’; a little more specifically,
the working conditions at small- to mid-size businesses that are even
now exceedingly bad, as well as the basic conditions that maintain this
(1961: 49)
While Shind , like Flaherty, evoked the notions of ‘spirit’ and ‘poetic effect’
when explaining the inaccuracies in The Naked Island, Uriu has detected the
film’s implicit social critique in the socio-politically crucial year of 1960 beyond
the (agri)cultural allegory.
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Lauri Kitsnik
268 Asian Cinema
12. Alongside such
politically charged
films as Shindo¯ ’s
爆の子 (Children of
Hiroshima) (1952),
(The Ditch) (1954)
and 第五福竜丸 (Lucky
Dragon No. 5) (1959),
The Naked Island might
indeed seem like a
timeless fable.
13. Shindo¯ points out
wryly that it was
easier to find a seat
on the train because
very few people were
commuting to work
that day (Shindo¯ 1994:
Something that has puzzled many viewers of The Naked Island, besides its
deceptive simplicity, is that at first glance the film seems to be devoid of
explicit political content. This is very much in contrast to Shind s earlier work,
both praised and criticized for its strong leftist agenda when dealing with
issues such as war, crime, poverty, disease and discrimination.12 The lack of
political engagement is even more striking if we consider that the film was
released in 1960 amidst the calamities surrounding the re-signing of the US–
Japan Security Treaty. It might seem as if Shind was deliberately detaching
and distancing himself from what was taking place in the cities teeming with
political protests. In fact, according to Shind ’s shooting diary for The Naked
Island, his small film crew left Tokyo on the morning of 22 June, the day of the
general strike that was following outbursts of dissent and violence that had
been ongoing since the previous month.13
At this juncture, the question that one should probably be asking is
whether the intent behind the making of The Naked Island was to depict an
archetypal human drama by isolating its setting from the societal complexi-
ties of Japan in 1960, one of the most politically charged moments in postwar
Japanese history, or rather, by so doing addressing precisely these contempo-
rary issues in a more oblique and allegorical manner. After all, Lutz Koepnick
in his influential work on slowness has posited that
the wager of aesthetic slowness is not simply to find islands of respite,
calm and stillness somewhere outside the cascades of contemporary
speed culture […] [but to] investigate what it means to experience a
world of speed, acceleration, and contemporality.
(2014: 10)
I will leave this interpretation intact and proceed to point out that Shind ,
from a personal and professional point of view alike, had bigger fish to fry
when leaving Tokyo for the Inland Sea that summer morning. In the introduc-
tion to 太陽とカチンコ (The Sun and Clapboard) (1960), a book that shortly
accompanied the release of The Naked Island, Shind makes it clear that his
main motivation for making the film was the current state of the Japanese film
industry (Shind 1994: 154–55). It is not the crowded streets but major studios
that Shind ’s critique more readily pertains to and while the notion of strug-
gle (闘い) permeates his autobiographical writings, it is mostly targeting the
standard practices of the studio system that seemed restrictive in all too many
ways for an independent filmmaker like Shind .
An example of how The Naked Island visualizes this critique of the Japanese
film industry can be seen in the sequence depicting wheat growing that pains-
takingly follows the entire process from sowing the seed to cutting, threshing,
collecting and delivering the stock, again in a boat. Shind contextualizes this
within his experiences of directing for major Japanese film studios:
When you are being hired to direct for a film company, although I haven’t
actually done much of that, the main thing is not to let a shot drag on.
You can’t shoot a slow scene like this of people just walking along carry-
ing a sack of wheat. You would have to cut and jump straight from the
harvest to the coast. Here, I could faithfully follow the natural sequence.
(Shind and Hayashi 2000)
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Real and slow 269
By such simple acts as extending the duration of a scene, The Naked Island
represents a deliberate protest against studio filmmaking on both an aesthetic
and an ideological level. While studio productions of the day involved the
work of hundreds of people, The Naked Island was shot with a crew of only
thirteen members (including the director and actors), who, during the shoot-
ing, were living communally under ascetic conditions not unlike the charac-
ters in the film. Displayed here is a particular work ethic but also a critique
of the detailed division of labour on which the studio system relied upon,
while stripped-down independent filmmaking is presented as a more intimate
and flexible alternative to such mainstream filmmaking. Moreover, The Naked
Island was made at the time when corporate consolidation towards the end
of the 1950s, exemplified by the Five-Company Agreement (五社協定),14 had
led to a situation whereby major film studios controlled virtually all means of
production, technical and acting staff, venues of exhibition and, by extension,
the mass audience.
Shindo¯ had completed the script of The Naked Island as early as 1955 while
taking a break between writing for Nikkatsu and T ei studios. It was published
in the journal 映画芸術 (Film Art) in December 1957, but initially without
any intention of being produced (Shindo¯ 1994: 157). While Shindo¯ gradually
started to entertain the idea of making the film, he was all too aware that the
experimental approach would be too off-putting for any major studios.15 In
the 1950s, Shind ’s films had often been produced and/or distributed by big
companies, but towards the end of the decade he found himself increasingly
disillusioned by the mainstream system. Eventually, Shind decided to make
the film without any external funding, using only what he earned writing
scripts for other directors,16 after devising a plan to radically cut the production
costs by downsizing the staff and arriving at the rough figure of 5 million yen
for the entire film (at the time, studio productions would have normally cost
between 20 and 50 million yen) (Shind 1994: 164–66).
Figure 4: The wheat harvesting scene from The Naked Island.
14. Originally devised
in 1953 by the five
major film companies
(Sho¯ chiku, To¯ ho¯ , Daiei,
To¯ ei and Shin-To¯ ho¯ ) to
prevent the flow of its
staff to the newcomer
Nikkatsu. However,
Nikkatsu itself joined
the agreement in
1958, making it the Six-
Company Agreement.
For more, see Anderson
and Richie (1982: 356).
15. Shindo¯ humorously
admits to having at
one point resolved
to simply shoot
the script – literally
the pages of the
screenplay – so that he
would not have to pay
the actors and staff the
money that he did not
have (Shindo¯ 1994: i).
16. Shindo¯ was one of
the most prolific
screenwriters in Japan,
with over 200 films to
his credit. In the late
1950s, he averaged
six to eight produced
scripts annually,
excluding those
directed by himself.
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Lauri Kitsnik
270 Asian Cinema
17. The Japanese critics
viewed the film
favourably, and it
placed sixth at the
annual Kinema Junp
critics’ poll, becoming
Shindo¯ ’s highest-
ranking film to that
18. The film shared the
prize with Grigori
Chukhrai’s Chistoe
nebo (Clear Skies)
19. It has been pointed out
how the international
film festival has
‘enabled not only
[slow cinema’s]
global promotion and
consumption but also
its production’ (de Luca
and Barradas Jorge
2015: 11).
20. This film followed the
director’s earlier Las
tierras blancas (The
White Land) (1959), set
in a poor village in a
semi-desert climate
that is attacked by
The Naked Island was to be the swansong of the independent production
company, 近代映画協会 (Modern Film Association), which Shind had founded
with the director Yoshimura K zabur after both left the Sh chiku studios in 1950.
At that time, we had been in independent production for exactly
10 years. Both economically and mentally, we had reached the point
where we were going to have to wind up the company, If so, we thought,
before that happens, let’s first make one pure film with no concessions
to commercialism.
(Shind and Hayashi 2000)
It was not only the film’s production, but also its later exhibition that was
highly problematic at the time when Japanese cinema had evolved to the
point where the studios were targeting specific audiences with their exclu-
sive networks of promotion and distribution, something that an independent
production could not rely on. Indeed, the only distributor who approached
Shind about the film did so because judging from the ‘naked’ in the title,
they had thought that it was an erotic feature (Shind 1994: 128). As a result,
the exhibition of The Naked Island was severely limited to minor, often rural
venues. However, the film that premiered on 23 November 1960 was soon
gaining a reputation, and a sympathetic review in the leading film journal
Kinema Junp キネマ旬報 called for the film to be more widely distributed to
mainstream urban audiences (Izawa 1961: 83). 17
With the completion of The Naked Island, Shind believed his directing
career to be over and expected to return to full-time screenwriting. However,
the film’s unexpected success changed this course of action. Although his
earlier 原爆の子 (Children of Hiroshima) (1952) had received limited exhibition
outside Japan, it was The Naked Island, Shind ’s sixteenth feature as direc-
tor, that finally introduced him to an international audience, largely thanks to
its winning the Grand Prize at the 2nd Moscow International Film Festival.18
Shind recalls selling the screening rights to 64 different countries in a matter
of days during the festival and adds that ‘[w]e made so many prints of this
film. I thought we were going to wear the negative out’ (Shind and Hayashi
2000). The Naked Island, not initially screened in major Japanese cinemas,
found a forum at an international film festival, an altogether different venue
with an audience that is generally sympathetic to experimental modes of film-
making.19 In this capacity, The Naked Island was also showing the way to the
next generation of Japanese independent filmmakers.
Paradoxically, Shind ’s bold, perhaps even desperate, decision to make
a quasi-silent, quasi-documentary film saved his independent company from
impending bankruptcy. But the fact that Shind ’s work first found international
success in Moscow also brings to the fore the geopolitical aspect of film recep-
tion networks against the backdrop of the Cold War-era tactics of soft power.
The thematic focus of Shind s films certainly struck a chord with audiences and
particularly the state-controlled system of film distribution in the Socialist Bloc,
where the depiction of labour carried yet another set of meanings in an ideolog-
ical sense. In his diary, Shind recalls how the passage with a wheat field sway-
ing in the wind instantly received applause from its Moscow audience (Shind
1994: 136). It seems that The Naked Island fell on fertile ground awaiting inter-
national social realism. The competition that year included other films depicting
rural hardships such as Esta tierra es mía (This Earth Is Mine) (Carril, 1961) about
the life of cotton workers in the province of Chaco and their struggle for wages.20
07_AC_29.2_Kitsnik_261-273.indd 270 11/6/18 2:16 PM
Real and slow 271
21. Joan Mellen (1975:
74–76) has summarized
various western
reactions to the film.
With this geopolitical background, it is hardly surprising that western critics
were somewhat less generous in their opinions of The Naked Island.21 Pauline
Kael notoriously described the film as ‘ponderously, pretentiously simple’ and
quipped that ‘it may have had a special appeal for the Russians – as one of the
few foreign films that could be absolutely counted on to make life outside the
Soviet Union look more grim than life inside’ (1968: 356–57). Many Japanese
critics seem to have sided with this sentiment, with Tada Michitar admit-
ting being embarrassed by such a depiction of Japan (Mellen 1975: 76), and
Figure 5: Shind Kaneto (right) receiving the Grand Prize for The Naked Island at
the 2nd Moscow International Film Festival.
07_AC_29.2_Kitsnik_261-273.indd 271 11/6/18 2:16 PM
Lauri Kitsnik
272 Asian Cinema
-shima Nagisa sharply criticized Shind for presenting the western audience
a self-orientalized image of Japan. Maya Turovskaya, a major Soviet film critic,
took a more analytical approach and compared The Naked Island to Alexander
Dovzhenko’s Земля (Earth) (1930) (Turovskaya 1961: 140–41). This seminal
silent film was an influence on Uchida’s film of the same title, which in turn
had influenced Shind in his devising a brand of slow semi-documentary real-
ism for The Naked Island.
The Naked Island was a turning point for its director Shind , both for moving
from earlier social melodrama to the more experimental approach with film
form and receiving critical acclaim, both in Japan and internationally. However,
its historical reputation and relevance lie strongly in the way in which it influ-
enced the subsequent boom in independent film production in Japan in the
1960s. The film’s critical and commercial success pointed the way for fledg-
ling Japanese filmmakers who could no longer find work within the declining
studio system. The Naked Island was a seminal film in that it proved the viabil-
ity of stripped-down, self-financed small-budget production – a mode of film-
making that could find considerable success without relying on the big studio
networks of production, promotion and exhibition.
The author would like to express his gratitude to the Sainsbury Institute for
the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, and Japan Society for the Promotion
of Science (JSPS KAKENHI Grant Number JP17F17738) for research funding.
Anderson, Joseph L. and Richie, Donald (1982), The Japanese Film: Art and
Industry, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Barsam, Richard (1988), The Vision of Robert Flaherty, The Artist as Myth and
Filmmaker, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Bazin, André (2005), What is Cinema? (trans. Hugh Gray), vol. 1, London and
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Bond, Ralph (1934), Man of Aran reviewed’, Cinema Quarterly, 2:4, Summer,
pp. 245–46.
Flaherty, Robert J. (1934), Man of Aran, Irish Free State: Gainsborough Pictures.
Flanagan, Matthew (2008), ‘Towards an aestheric of slow in contempo-
rary cinema’, 16:9,
Accessed 26 January 2018.
Ishizaka, Sh z 石坂昌三 (1995), 小津安二郎と茅ヶ崎館 (Ozu Yasujir and
Chigasakikan), Tokyo: Shinch sha.
Izawa, Jun (1961), 裸の島 (‘The Naked Island’), Kinema Junp , 336, January, p. 83.
Kael, Pauline (1968), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, New York: Little, Brown and
Kitsnik, Lauri (2014), ‘A record of repeated gestures: Leitmotifs in
Shind Kaneto’s films’, Reflexive Horizons, http://www.reflexivehorizons.
com/2014/04/. Accessed 26 January 2018.
Koepnick, Lutz (2014), On Slowness: Toward an Aesthetic of the Contemporary,
New York: Columbia University Press.
07_AC_29.2_Kitsnik_261-273.indd 272 11/6/18 2:16 PM
Real and slow    273
Luca, Tiago de and Barradas Jorge, Nuno (eds) (2015), ‘Introduction: From
slow cinema to slow cinemas’, in Slow Cinema, Edinburgh: Edinburgh
University Press, pp. 1–21.
McLoone, Martin (2005), Man of Aran’, in B. McFarlane (ed.), The Cinema of
Britain and Ireland, London: Wallflower Press, pp. 41–51.
Mellen, Joan (1975), Voices from the Japanese Cinema, New York: Liveright.
Schoonover, Karl (2012), ‘Wastrels of time: Slow cinema’s laboring body, the
political spectator, and the queer’, Framework: The Journal of Cinema and
Media, 53:1, Spring, pp. 65–78.
Shind , Kaneto 新藤兼人 (1952), 原爆の子 (Children of Hiroshima), Japan:
Kindai Eiga Kyo
—— (1960), 裸の島 (The Naked Island), Japan: Kindai Eiga Kyo
—— (1994), 新藤兼人の足跡 (Shind Kaneto’s Footprints, vol. 5:) 闘い (The
Struggles), Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten.
Shind , Kaneto and Hayashi, Hikaru (2000), ‘Commentary’, The Naked Island,
DVD extras, Japan: Kindai Eiga Kyo
Stoney, George C. and Brown, James (1978), How the Myth was Made: A Study
of Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran, USA: George C. Stoney Associates.
Turovskaya, Maya (Т уровская , Ма йя ) (1961), ‘Гол ы й остров ’ ( The Naked
Island’), Iskusstvo Kino, 11, pp. 140–44.
Uchida, Tomu 内田吐夢 (1939), (Earth), Japan: Nikkatsu.
Uriu, Tadao 瓜生忠夫 (1961), 「裸の島」と芸術的主題 (‘The Naked Island and
artistic themes’), Shinario, 17:9, pp. 48–50.
Visconti, Luchino (1948), La terra trema (The Earth Trembles), Italy: Universalia
Yamagiwa, Eiz 山際永三 (1961), 伝統の荷受人ー新藤兼人 (‘Shind Kaneto:
The consignee of tradition’), Shinario, 17:9, pp. 51–53.
SuggeSted citation
Kitsnik, L. (2018), ‘Real and slow: The poetics and politics of The Naked Island’,
Asian Cinema, 29:2, pp. 261–73, doi: 10.1386/ac.29.2.261_1
contributor detaiLS
Lauri Kitsnik (Ph.D. Cantab) is Japan Society for the Promotion of Science
Postdoctoral Research fellow at Kyoto University. His research interests include
Japanese and international film history and theory, adaptation and screenwrit-
ing. His work has appeared in Japanese Studies, Journal of Japanese and Korean
Cinema, Journal of Screenwriting and several edited volumes.
Contact: Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies, Kyoto
University, Yoshida-nihonmatsu-cho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto, 606-8501, Japan.
Lauri Kitsnik has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents
Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work in the format that was
submitted to Intellect Ltd.
07_AC_29.2_Kitsnik_261-273.indd 273 10/11/18 12:47 PM
To order this book online visit our website:
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07_AC_29.2_Kitsnik_261-273.indd 274 11/6/18 2:16 PM
... This is an expression of resistance to story, stage drama and fiction. (Imamura 1940, p. 43, author's translation) I have previously examined (Kitsnik 2018) how the over-long and repetitive sequences in Shindō's The Naked Island relate to earlier works such as Uchida's next film, Earth (Tsuchi, 1939), shot over a period of one year and simultaneously to A Thousand and One Nights in Tokyo. Shindō's first substantial assignment as a screenwriter had actually been with the elder director, although the project that included taking a trip to Manchuria and going through a number of rewrites ultimately came to nothing. ...
... Elsewhere (Kitsnik 2018), I have argued that Shindō's voice and physical features that appear to belong to a rural laborer become the site of authenticity that supports the perception of his films as semi-documentaries. In the examples above, by bringing the documentarist to the screen, not unlike fellow filmmakers Werner Herzog, Nick Broomfield or Michael Moore, Shindō also takes a step from self-reference to self-reflexion and, by so doing, moves towards what could be called metadocumentary. ...
... Elsewhere (Kitsnik 2018), I have argued that Shindō's voice and physical features that appear to belong to a rural laborer become the site of authenticity that supports the perception of his films as semi-documentaries. In the examples above, by bringing the documentarist to the screen, not unlike fellow filmmakers Werner Herzog, Nick Broomfield or Michael Moore, Shindō also takes a step from self-reference to self-reflexion and, by so doing, moves towards what could be called meta-documentary. ...
Full-text available
In his work, the filmmaker Shindō Kaneto sought to employ various, often seemingly incongruous, cinematic styles that complicate the notions of fiction and documentary film. This paper first examines his ‘semi-documentary’ films that often deal with the everyday life of common people by means of an enhanced realist approach. Second, attention is paid to the fusion of documentary and drama when reenacting historical events, as well as the subsequent recycling of these images in a ‘quasi-documentary’ fashion. Finally, I uncover a trend towards ‘meta-documentary’ that takes issue with the act of filmmaking itself. I argue that Shindō’s often self-referential work challenges the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction while engaging in a self-reflective criticism of cinema as a medium.
Across a sixty-year trajectory, many art films have stubbornly confronted viewers with slowness. From the perspective of classical Hollywood, these chunks of fallow film time “overspend,” upset, or even foreclose on the continuity system’s prized narrative economy, replacing eventfulness with an unproductive episodic meandering. From Antonioni to Apichatpong, these art films also encourage us to consider how watching wasted screen time differs from wasting time in real life. In doing so, this slower kind of film proposes the possibility that cinema can capture excess as a temporality. Although not all art house fare can be labeled slow, I speculate here that valorizing slowness characterizes one crucial sociopolitical parameter of art cinema’s consumption. In the idea of a spectator who recognizes the value of slowness, I believe we can discover something of the art film’s historicity.1 The slow art film anticipates a spectator not only eager to clarify the value of wasted time and uneconomical temporalities but also curious about the impact of broadening what counts as productive human labor. This fact makes any slow film pertinent to the question of queer representation, and it asks us to consider what it might mean to be productively queer. Last year, however, Sight and Sound editor Nick James took aim at the contemporary art house trend toward “slow cinema.”2 In a short but scathing editorial, James interrogates what he sees as a critical bias undermining the rigor of film criticism and the very basis of film aesthetics. He offers a blistering set of accusations motivated by a fear that slow films hinder our ability to appreciate Hollywood narrative, dulling our capacity for attention and diminishing our mental acumen. Unlike the noble “slow food” movement, in which aesthetic authenticity arises from patient and sustainable modes of preparation, slow filmmaking is a “passive aggressive” crusade that lulls its viewers into complacency by asking them to dwell excessively in image and squandering “great swathes of our precious time to achieve quite fleeting and slender aesthetic and political effects.” According to James, the indulgent wastefulness of films like those by Pedro Costa or Tsai Ming-Liang makes for lazy viewers. He is making a dig here at many of the world’s most visible and institutionally positioned film critics, for whom slower is better, more profound, artier. He reflects, “I have begun to wonder if maybe some of [today’s slow films] now offer an easy life for critics and programmers. After all, the festivals themselves commission many of these productions, and such films are easy to remember and discuss in detail because details are few.” While these statements infuriated many scholars, critics, and filmmakers, there is also a productive conceptual terrain mapped by this description. James imagines a mutually beneficial equation: a conspiracy between filmmakers and critics, and a broader collaboration of the slow filmic image with its viewer. Like a counterpart to Linda Williams’s “body genre,” the slow film’s wallowing image invokes an indulgent temporality in this viewer. Not only James but also slow cinema’s other detractors invert the classic formulation of the art cinema criticism that began with neorealism and its most vocal supporter, André Bazin.3 For Bazin and many of his followers, the slower the shot and the greater the sense of unfettered, living duration, or durée, the greater the effort required of the spectator. This dilation of time encourages a more active and politically present viewing practice—an enagement commended for the intensity of its perception. Seeing becomes a form of labor. The critical campaign against current slow cinema denies the political potential of this Bazinian mode of spectating and calls into question whether watching slow films “is worth it.” James’s editorial thus ends with an admission that sounds like a call to arms: “I’ll be looking out for more active forms of rebellion.” For him, slow films are passive films that aggressively foreclose on any active resistance. They seem to cheat political agency and discipline, and they eschew hard work. While James’s surety about measuring the political effects of particular techniques is as questionable as it is noble, a more subtle presumption underwriting his and other similar...
The Vision of Robert Flaherty, The Artist as Myth and Filmmaker
  • Richard Barsam
Barsam, Richard (1988), The Vision of Robert Flaherty, The Artist as Myth and Filmmaker, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Man of Aran reviewed
  • Ralph Bond
Bond, Ralph (1934), 'Man of Aran reviewed', Cinema Quarterly, 2:4, Summer, pp. 245-46.
Towards an aestheric of slow in contemporary cinema
  • Robert J Flaherty
Flaherty, Robert J. (1934), Man of Aran, Irish Free State: Gainsborough Pictures. Flanagan, Matthew (2008), 'Towards an aestheric of slow in contemporary cinema', 16:9, Accessed 26 January 2018.
裸の島 ('The Naked Island'), Kinema Junpō
  • Jun Izawa
Izawa, Jun (1961), 裸の島 ('The Naked Island'), Kinema Junpō, 336, January, p. 83.
A record of repeated gestures: Leitmotifs in Shindō Kaneto's films
  • Lauri Kitsnik
Kitsnik, Lauri (2014), 'A record of repeated gestures: Leitmotifs in Shindō Kaneto's films', Reflexive Horizons, http://www.reflexivehorizons. com/2014/04/. Accessed 26 January 2018.
How the Myth was Made: A Study of Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran
  • George C Stoney
  • James Brown
Stoney, George C. and Brown, James (1978), How the Myth was Made: A Study of Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran, USA: George C. Stoney Associates.