Kaneto Shindo by Zack Friedman

The films of Kaneto Shindo, including the now tragically relevant Children of Hiroshima, tell stark tales of life at the margins of society. Zack Friedman considers the ways in which Shindo’s characters manage to survive.

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Children of Hiroshima (1952) (Noboku Otowa on right). Photo courtesy of BAMcinematek/The Japan Foundation.

Consider the two meanings of the phrase “live through”: to survive or endure and to experience vicariously. They seem almost mockingly far apart; one cannot really live through what someone else has really lived through. This distinction comes to mind while watching the films of Japanese director Kaneto Shindo, whose retrospective at BAM has been titled “The Urge for Survival.” ‘Survival’ is apt—his characters, notably people struggling to reassemble life a few years after the bombing of Hiroshima and destitute inhabitants of a remote island, are alive when they very well could not be. Yet survival does not seem to be something they desire, only something that happens to them, and we cannot quite understand how.

Children of Hiroshima (1952) begins with a pan through the rubble of the ruined city before jumping to an elementary school teacher supervising gymnastics on an idyllic island. Her name is Takako (Nobuko Otowa, Shindo’s wife), and she is returning to Hiroshima, her hometown, for the first time since the bombing. As she arrives a voiceover somewhat pedagogically states, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Hiroshima, where the world’s first A-bomb victims died on August 6th, 1945… The children of that day are now grown.”

Shindo was commissioned to make the film by the left-wing Japanese Teachers Union. Based on published recollections by schoolchildren who survived the bombing, it was meant to testify to Japan’s losses. Children of Hiroshima did not reach the desired level of documentarian didacticism, though it is very much a condemnation of atomic warfare. Images of devastation wrought by nuclear power, the ghost which haunts much of postwar Japanese film, will remind viewers of the present-day suffering and fear in Japan, as if Hiroshima were not horror enough. Parallel physical and psychological traces of trauma show scars from the bombing. Stone steps bear the charred shadow of a man instantly vaporized, and planes in the sky trigger flashbacks.

In Hiroshima, Takako looks for her former pupils and friends, a series of children real or vanished. A friend was made sterile, and to compensate, she works as a midwife and hopes to adopt. A family friend has been reduced to a blind beggar who only wants to see his grandson, now in an orphanage. One pupil is dying of radiation poisoning; another, outwardly healthy, has seen his family broken. What could be a flimsy narrative device that gives structure to a succession of polemical sequences instead becomes a moving look at remembrance. Like the viewer, for whom she stands in, Takako wants to be part of mourning, yet remains at a distance from the people whose lives were destroyed by the bomb.

In the film’s most memorable sequence, a montage of images called forth as Takako imagines the moment the bomb dropped, we come closer to her perspective. We see an ordinary morning becoming an apocalypse, flesh melting, plants withering, and footage of the Enola Gay and the mushroom cloud. The succession of horrific images is her projection of what must have occurred as well as Shindo’s cinematographic attempt to represent the horror of the bomb. For both character and filmmaker, the tragedy must be commemorated, yet the witnesses can get only so far out of their own heads.

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The Naked Island (1960) (Noboku Otowa). Photo courtesy of BAMcinematek/Janus.

The subjects of Shindo’s 1961 film The Naked Island, a sparse, almost-dialogue free look at a life that seemingly abuts on the edge of humanity, have quite different things to survive. A family of four inhabits a small island at the periphery of an archipelago, and, presumably, all civilization. It is hilly and inhospitable, though beautiful in black-and-white (now in new 35mm print). Each morning the husband and wife perform the Sisyphean errand of fetching fresh water from another, larger island and bear it back across the sea. They tend their few crops in silence.

Shindo gives space and meaning to each task his characters have to perform—the stroke of an oar, pouring out water, placing bowls on a rough table. Though the characters live in a world almost without language, their attentiveness gives them some faint dignity. The performance of routine tasks, when captured in such detail, seems almost like a ritual, exquisitely choreographed. There are few events as such. Once, the wife spills a bucket of water, a seemingly minor event that feels extremely jarring when it occurs. There is a horrible space before her husband slaps her that is almost more violent than his punishment. At the end, after a tragedy, she pours out a bucket on purpose and attacks a row of plants, as if simply trying to make something take notice of her. And then routine resumes.

Though their life seems untouched by time except for marking off the seasons, primitive and harsher than Hesiod’s Aegean, they are surrounded by modern trappings. Boats go by, the children attend school. When the younger son hooks a large fish, they take it to the mainland to sell. They go door-to-door until finally a fishmonger gives in. Notably, all exchange occurs off screen—the film shows only a pre-modern economy. The children are bored by or simply unequipped to react to a television screen showing a woman dancing. It is a piece of our overstimulated world in the midst of their barren one. It is perhaps almost as hard for us to figure out what to do with the people of The Naked Island—what can go on in such minds? Shindo no doubt has political lessons for us to draw from this picture of destitution on the margins of society. Their life is almost impossible to romanticize, except that it is made beautiful.

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Onibaba (1964). Photo courtesy of BAMcinematek/Photofest.

Shindo’s later films became more psychosexual and erotic, including the standout Onibaba (1964), a tale of women who earn their keep by picking off stray samurai, filled with demons, lust, and rippling tall grass. The title of the retrospective comes from a quote of Shindo’s, “My idea of sex is nothing but the expression of the vitality of man, his urge for survival.” Yet his earlier works, largely stripped of sexuality and, for that matter, any sort of vitality, portray a sort of survival that seems almost inexplicable.

“The Urge for Survival: Kaneto Shindo,” including the North American premieres of Children of Hiroshima and Postcard (2011), the 99-year-old director’s final film (his birthday is today), plays at BAMcinématek Apr 22—May 5. Benicio del Toro will introduce the retrospective; proceeds will benefit relief efforts in Japan.

Zack Friedman is a writer based in New York.

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