Twentieth Century Man

Kaneto Shindo and the power of nightmares
by Michael Atkinson  posted April 21, 2011
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Having endured in the Japanese film industry for longer than the current global life expectancy—going on 70 years now—Kaneto Shindo has managed a career that scans like a separate lifetime on its own, deep in conversation with history and Japan since the '50s, riding the crests and swales of waves and trends, struggling with meaning as the will and sensibility behind it wander from late adolescence to middle age to the autumn years. In the meantime, Shindo, never an exportable star nor an obedient studio soldier, has been a living model of prolificity, penning over 150 films in that period (often enough, a year would see seven films made from Shindo scripts, directed by the likes of Yasuzo Masumura and Kon Ichikawa), and directing 45, a no-nonsense cinema-is-life curriculum that hardly flagged as he went from conscientious postwar Ozu-ite to riled New Waver to contemplative Oliveira-like mandarin.

The depth of his footprint on Japanese cinema is difficult to overestimate. If non-Nipponophile filmgoers have known Shindo in the U.S., it's by way of Onibaba (1964), the bruising, hypnotic dog-eat-dog brother film to Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes (released the same year), and one of the most dire visions to emerge from the battery of hellspawn known as the Japanese New Wave. The scenario is merciless: during the feudal-era wars, a woman and her daughter-in-law (the son/husband in question has been Shanghaied, and never returns) living in a vast field of suzuki grass feed themselves by stalking and killing passing soldiers, selling their armor and swords to a local trader and then tumbling the bodies into a hidden well. But a third jungle predator—a runaway soldier as savvy as the women—disrupts the perfect balance struck between cannibalistic opportunism, lifeboat ethics, and a landscape that's both mystery-keeping metaphor and richly tactile. The irrationality of sexual hunger trumps the Darwinian clarity of predation, or the clarity of sexual alliance destroys the feral psychosis fostered by frontier survival, depending on how much cynicism you apply to Shindo's scenario. A lot, you'd think, especially once you remember the chilling moment when the soldier exits the trader's den and passes by another mother-daughter team, sunburnt and seething, carrying their own load of ill-gotten swords and armor.

This was one Shindo—the '60s firestarter capable of igniting tension in his environment's oozing crude via flaring close-ups, sweaty sexual frustration, and haiku cutaways to the obscuring drifts of grass, again and again. But we catch a glimpse here of a major concern of the filmmaker's that percolated from one end of his long filmography to the other: the furious fascination with the abuses women suffer within Japan's masculine-cult society. Having seen only roughly a quarter of Shindo's extraordinary output, I can still say I've never seen so many rapes and so much sexual combat in one director's oeuvre. In Onibaba the sides are, relative to the animalistic state to which every character is reduced, evenly drawn, as they are in the pulpier, nearly-as-popular Kuroneko (1968), another portrait of the feudal wilderness from the perspective of tortured women. Here, in something like a throat-biting version of I Spit on Your Grave, a mother/daughter-in-law pair of gang-raped corpses, incarnated as feline vampires, lure and decimate an endless string of cocky samurai, until a fabled warrior son, now a chieftain's officer, is told to eliminate whatever is haunting Rashomon Gate at night and drinking gallons of man-blood. As with his suzuki fields, Shindo's haunted bamboo grove is captured as if from a dream, all night shadows and luminescent mist, even when we're in the ghosts' illusory house, which sometimes, via a deftly conceived double exposure, appears to glide through the dark forest on its own. Sumptuous genre textures, however, can hardly detour us away from the tragic political intent behind the final, limb-hacking, back-flipping mother-son faceoff, which pits self-righteous patriarchal might against aeons of angry, abused women.

Despite the resonant blast of these two famous quasi-pulp nightmares, Shindo has been no psychotronic devotee, nor has he trucked very much otherwise in his nation's beloved historical genres. In fact, the chasm between Kuroneko and his first great success, Children of Hiroshima (1952), seems preposterously vast in every sense. But it's the earlier film, just now getting week-long engagements here within the Shindo retrospective that's traveling the country, that leaves a deeper cut, particularly when you remember its historical moment—released seven years to the day after the bomb dropped on Hiroshima (for perspective, Americans might consider that 9/11, a far more modest manmade cataclysm, is almost a full decade distant now), and in brisk defiance of the ostensible taboo against filmic explorations of the bombings and the ongoing travails of the hibakusha afterward. It could hardly be a more heartbroken film, with its early depiction of the bombing itself (possibly the first such scene ever, lyrically imagined as a kind of dust-covered Noh dance in a Dantean void), and the leap ahead four years to follow a young teacher (Shindo's wife, Nobuko Otowa) returning to her home in Hiroshima out of a sense of obligation, to where her parents were incinerated and her acquaintances—a fellow teacher, a family servant—patiently struggle in the ruins to maintain their lives.

The smiling, swallowed-emotions full-frontal Ozu gaze is here and used mercilessly. At one point the heroine and her friend fondly recall teaching a kindergarten class that must be, they assume, almost all dead, and contain their grief in silence—the moment, not manifested within a formal tea-ceremony strategy à la Ozu or Mizoguchi (with whom Shindo apprenticed) but still attending to gazes and time spent thinking, is as leveling as any in Japanese film. Shindo uses real radiation-burn victims (many of whom, we can assume, did not survive for long after filming) and observes moments that must've made the Japanese viewers of the '50s shudder (when an airplane flies overhead, everybody freezes and looks up), and the aggregate experience makes Imamura's Black Rain, often considered the definitive, globally known Japanese film about surviving the bomb, seem clumsy by comparison. Shindo was born in Hiroshima, and was absent (in the Army, or held as a prisoner) in 1945, and the guilt is palpable enough to have made him return to the city in his films again and again, even outside of the war's context.

With his feminist edge and occasionally indulged activist sensibility, Shindo focused on problems in Japanese life as they came, including the detailed and scalding Lucky Dragon No. 5 (1959), portraying in classical Stanley Kramer fashion the fate of the men aboard the titular fishing boat after it became exposed to the unpredicted and uncontrolled blast and fallout of the Bikini Atoll hydrogen bomb detonation in 1954. As a sincere look at a forgotten chapter in Japan's ongoing relationship with atomic radiation, the film's qualmy procedural practicality evokes 2011's unresolved disaster, and the nation's roll-the-sleeves-up response, too closely for comfort. The Naked Island (1960) is substantially more auteur-ish—a risky, dialogue-free, widescreen portrait of a family of four living a hardscrabble existence on a rocky island, farming in the sand and transporting buckets of fresh water every day by canoe from the mainland. As always, Shindo homes in on the overbearing physical difficulties of the landscape, but if the experiment comes with a tinge of mezzobrow patronization, it has nevertheless acquired a substantial fan base over the years, including The New York Times' Bosley Crowther, whose initial accolades lose their amperage as it becomes obvious he thought the film was a documentary.

Shindo's career is inextricably entwined with Otowa's. Most of his major films are configured as narratives of social tribulation as seen through her sad eyes, from Children of Hiroshima to the horror films (Otowa played the oft-naked, sun-brazed mother in Onibaba, as well as the maternal vampiress in Kuroneko), various super-softcore sex dramas, The Naked Island, Mother (1963), and the youth-culture firecracker Live Today, Die Tomorrow! (1970). A tetchy, timely New Wave film that evokes Oshima's films of the period, Live Today chases after a discontented wandering punk who kicks puppies, kills a security guard, and ends up a serial killer. But the juice comes in the backstory flashbacks, in which Otowa plays the protagonist's mother relocating to a northern city and enduring a relentless litany of rapes, abuses, beatings, and betrayals, initiating (or continuing?) a desperate arc of victimization and discontent. Freely robbing from both Breathless (a cabbie killing is almost a shot-by-shot Godard homage) and Medium Cool (the doomed lad, and Shindo's camera, wander into a very real street protest), it's a movie unjustly forgotten in discussions of the period's keynote works, perhaps because Shindo, by this point 58, didn't have the generational street cred demanded by such socio-cinematic zeitgeists, when movies and other cultural exchanges aren't merely consumerables but public conversations within suspicious tribes of rebels and lost boys, for whom the pedigree of a filmmaker or artist is often just as vital as the work itself.

In the scores of films the couple made together until Otowa's death in 1994, Shindo put his wife through all manner of holy ordeal, eventually arriving at Tree Without Leaves (1986), in which a devastated aging writer broods and recalls his loving and physically intimate relationship (suckling, bathing) with his mother (Otowa), who died when he was 11. Set with flashbacks in Hiroshima sometime during the early-to-mid-century, the movie helplessly tempts us to expect a climactic revisiting of atomic hellfire, but we get only autumnal grief and regret and peaceful death, a dramatic ellipsis but a kind of elegy for Otowa several years before she was diagnosed with cancer. Shindo had passed into his final, distanced phase, reminiscent to me of Oliveira's past decade or so, the films of a tiring soul simultaneously urged by the press of time to keep making films, to stay alive within the lanternlight.

Shindo has slowed down, having made only three films since he turned 90, but the latest, Postcard (2010), is a return to the wartime '40s and to Hiroshima that's both viciously wry and crafted like an Isaac Bashevis Singer tale. A platoon is sent off to war, a wife's postcard is handed off by a soldier going off to certain death, the wife back home receives an empty funeral box—from there, the ironies spiral like staircases, through mirrored brothers' funerals (each hilariously also mirroring the conscripts' ritualized send-offs to war), domino-like compromises and deaths and tragic happenstance, all maintained with an air of buoyant (but hardly glib) resolve that Shindo must have acquired with old age, as you must as your loved ones vanish, and the world continues to shift under your feet. Certainly his grasp of women's plight in Japan's history has not loosened, and the film, a grim comedy of circumstance upon which you can feel the toothmarks of experience, may be the most salient and acidic film ever made by a 98-year-old. 


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BAMcinématek/The Japan Foundation
Noboku Otowa in Children of Hiroshima, directed by Kaneto Shindo
Photo Gallery: Twentieth Century Man


April 22–May 5, 2011 The Urge for Survival: Kaneto Shindo


Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

More articles by Michael Atkinson
Author's Website: Zero for Conduct