Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Essay: "The Island"

The Island (Hadaka No Shima) (1960)
Written and Directed by Kaneto Shindo

“Circularity and Repetition in
The Island

In film there is the unique opportunity to cull together a vast array of different images within the context of a single work of art, with so many different scenes composed of so many different frames. Just as unique is the opportunity to pursue a more minimal approach: re-using certain images and framing devices. This idea and application of repetition is essential to Kaneto Shindo’s film The Island. The story focuses on a family living in 1960s Japan on a small, remote island. They live off the land, farming their food, carrying their own water, and rowing across the bay to the mainland only to take the children to school and sell fish on occasion to pay for clothes. Within this narrative, Shindo’s application hints at a larger circularity, as though the events in the story are so unspectacular that they occur everyday. Secondly, Shindo develops a distinct autonomy between character and mise-en-scene that is reflected in his shots. Both of these traits, heartily present in the film, contribute to an atmosphere of harmony and recurrence that is maintained throughout the film only to be deliberately shattered at key moments in the film.

Shindo made his film like a silent picture. It is a particular silence achieved through the use of sound, as contradictory as it may seem. Waves and footsteps are the focus of the soundtrack; there is no dialogue, rather, there are universal sounds such as sighs, moans, cries, and children singing. It is ironic that it took the age of sound to achieve such a high level of purity in the silent cinema: not once in the film is there an inter-title, with the exception of the opening and closing credits: the story is told entirely visually. This concept was by no means new in 1960; in 1926 Teinosuke Kinugasa made his Caligari-esque
The Page of Madness, which, with no inter-titles either, tells the story of a janitor of an insane asylum whose wife is an inmate. As the film progresses, it becomes quite surreal, and the film’s conclusion is ambiguous: much like the ending of Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the audience is unsure whether the preceding events were a hallucination or not. German filmmaker F.W. Murnau even wrote an essay entitled “The Perfect Picture Needs No Titles,” which was to be a reflection on his ultimate goals for films like The Last Laugh (1924) or Sunrise (1928), which featured only one or two titles, respectively.

What makes Shindo’s effort so distinct is the seamlessness with which a story is told without dialogue in a sound world (there are occasional laughs, footsteps, and the rare children’s song that is so brief that it is the mass of the children’s’ voices that carry the impact, not their words). In many ways, it feels like watching one of Jacques Tati’s films, but whereas Tati reduced words to babble (something Chaplin previously did in
City Lights (1932) with a duck’s call) Shindo finds those moments that transcend the necessity of words. The startling lack of these words in this aural environment is highly impressionable upon the mood of the film: the effect of the soundtrack only increases the aura of fatalism as the family strives to survive.

The first scene introduces many of the images that will be repeated throughout the film, those of the mother and father carrying around two buckets filled with water, hung on either end of a long pole, which rests on their shoulders. They carry the water up the steep, rocky terrain that leads to their garden and their home. Shindo offers medium-close shots of them stopping, placing the pails on the grounds, and taking a rest; close-ups of water seeping into their seeded ground, as well as the cyclical caresses of an oar over the edge of a boat. The gentle kinesis of everyday life within these shots is repeated to give the impression of a greater circularity: this is their way of life, and the family endures it everyday. What is spectacular is the ritualistic attention that Shindo offers; it is the same concentration of the characters.

These stylistic elements of Shindo create a steady pace for most of the film: there is work, and from that work there is the immediate result: a fish caught, a vegetable harvested. The first half of the movie seems to take place in a temporal vacuity, but when the family rows across the bay to visit the mainland, the sight of cars makes the previous scenes seem anachronistic. It is on shore that the first aural “break” occurs: Shindo offers the spectators a brief opportunity to hear a children’s choir. The song is not translated, and the scene lasts little more than a second, but its resonance can be felt for the rest of the film. More than the joy of children in harmony, there is the harmony of a community at work in the scene. The labor of the first half of the film begins to take another shape, that of a collective. If the film focuses on one family, it is not to solely emphasize their isolation, but to view their attitudes as part of a larger community ethic. Rather than seeing their island as disconnected from the “modern” world, I prefer to view it as co-existing with it, and the actually “island” as the possibility un-utopia actually existing.

The film, which was made roughly a decade after the American occupation ended and at the start of modernization and the integration of Western culture, offers an unromantic portrayal of a much simpler counter-culture. Before the film leaves the island, one could imagine the film occurring in the nineteenth or eighteenth centuries. But living from the crops you grow and living apart from the cities, being able to reach them only by rowboat, is not presented as easy and idealistic, but as full of hardships. There is a high sense of fatalism among the family: they are reliant on the crops to grow, and more importantly, reliant on themselves, because help, be it from a friend or a doctor, is inconveniently located across the lake. Shindo represents the change from traditional to modern living in the film as not opposites, but of choices that can coexist. With modernization always an issue (currently manifested as the imposition of Western culture in the Middle East, for example),
The Island is an optimistic, but realistic, view, of holding on to traditions in a changing society.

The second half of the film ends in tragedy: rather than a choir, the aural “break” occurs with a mother, that blend of crying and screaming that is potent to break through even a truly silent film (such as the mother and baby-carriage from the Odessa Steps sequence in Eisenstein’s
Battleship Potemkin). If the family’s survival is the result of their own work, then the tragedy is the result of their own doings, as well. Certainly, this ending resonates with the fatalistic attitude of the film. When the mother spills a pail of water, the father reacts with such disgust and horror that he seems to be monstrous: is he abusive, or is he aware of the difficulty of survival in this landscape? Civic and ethic responsibilities are not so clear-cut in the film, as there is the constant tension between life and death that echoes louder with every crashing wave.

The idealism of their living styles is shattered at the film’s end, much like the idealism of a “silent” picture made with sound. The effects are not negative, merely impressionable. The film is characterized by its lack of certain sounds, likewise, the family by its tragedy, the lack of a child. I don’t wish to bind these two processes, one narrative and one technical. In fact, the comparison is a contradiction; however, the resultants of both processes, and in turn the heart of the film that connects both form and content, derive from conflict and absence: circularity and repetition.

-Cullen Gallagher