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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Naked Island: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
The Naked Island: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
Criterion // Unrated // May 17, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted May 13, 2016 | E-mail the Author

If you turn to movies for stress-free escapism, Kaneto Shindo's The Naked Island (1960) may not be your cup of tea. It's an experimental, cyclical, and almost wordless examination of a four-person family struggling to tread water as their exhausting daily routine continues without most of the modern conveniences we take for granted. Of course, the wife and husband (Nobuko Otowa and Taiji Tonoyama) and their two sons (Shinji Tanaka and Masanori Horimoto) still have it better than some folks: they've got food, shelter, and a small island to themselves; compared to a cramped life in the city and an office job, such an existence sounds almost idyllic. But if your primary source of income is harvesting wheat or catching the occasional fish, running water and electricity would make things a lot easier.

The family has neither, and toils to make ends meet the old-fashioned way. Countless boat trips to a neighboring (and completely modern) island are made to fill buckets of fresh water, which are carried up their steep hill and used to carefully irrigate their crop. Water is boiled with fire for the occasional family bath, and small meals are enjoyed outdoors. Other small pleasures are gradually attained along the way: after the boys catch a large fish and present it to their parents, they sell it on the neighboring island and spend the money at an actual restaurant. A television is displayed in a store window on the same street, which may as well be transmitting a signal from Mars.

Still, the bulk of Shindo's film focuses on their daily grind, which relentlessly continues even after tragedy strikes. It's a challenging experience but one that's easy to get lost in, both due to the compelling story and the dialogue-free format in which it's told. Aside from two short scenes on the neighboring island (mostly at a small school attended by the older son), The Naked Island avoids speech entirely but remains accessible and easy to follow. Whether the words are omitted entirely or simply covered by Hikaru Hayashi's looping, memorable score, the result is a carefully-assembled visual poem that resembles a silent film with a wider aspect ratio. Unsurprisingly, the venture was considered a huge financial risk for Shindo's struggling independent production company (co-founded with director Kozaburo Yoshimura and actor Taiji Tonoyama, who plays the husband and appeared in many of Shindo's other films).

Nonetheless, their gamble paid off: The Naked Island was a financial success and saved Shindo's company, allowing his career to flourish with later efforts like Onibaba and Kuronenko, both available from Criterion. Likewise, the studio ushers in The Naked Island's Region 1 debut but jumps straight to Blu-ray, serving up a strong A/V presentation (which uses the same source elements as Masters of Cinema's Region 2 Blu-ray) and a small collection of thoughtful, supportive extras. It's a fine package for a deserving film, and one that many will be seeing for the first time.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Not surprisingly, The Naked Island's outdoor visuals are rendered nicely on this 2.35:1, 1080p transfer. Director Kaneto Shindo mentions in the accompanying audio commentary that an unusually high number of prints were made from The Naked Island's original negative, but whatever source material was used still seems to be in very good condition. Image detail and textures are quite strong at times, with a reasonable amount of depth and adequate contrast. A few mild distractions can still be spotted along the way: vertical lines and debris, as well as occasional flickering and softness. But considering the film's extremely modest budget (and, of course, the less-than-impressive state of many Japanese films from this era), Criterion's Blu-ray stands as a solid effort and The Naked Island's best representation on home video to date. Fans and first-timers should have no problem appreciating what we get here.

DISCLAIMER: The screens caps featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-Ray's native 1080p resolution.

The Japanese LPCM 1.0 mono track is perfectly acceptable overall; there's obviously very little dialogue to critique, while Hikaru Hayashi's original score is mixed well and usually gets to shine by itself. The high end definitely feels a bit cramped on many occasions; this is obviously a source material issue and, considering the film's age and budget, it's entirely forgivable and barely a distraction in the first place. Background effects are sparse but relatively clear, offering a modest amount of depth and occasional layers that add to the film's isolated atmosphere. Optional English subtitles are presented during the main feature for Japanese audio and partial text translation only.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

As expected, Criterion's menu interface is smooth, descriptive, and easy to navigate. This one-disc release is packaged in Criterion's usual "stocky" Blu-Ray keepcase, adorned with suitably minimalist cover artwork by Vivienne Flesher. The included Booklet features vintage photos, technical specs, and an essay by film scholar Haden Guest.

Bonus Features

A few items of interest here, leading off with a full-length Audio Commentary by director Kaneto Shindo and composer Hikaru Hayashi, originally recorded in 2000 and included on Eureka/Masters of Cinema's DVD back in 2005 (as well as their own Blu-ray eight years later). It's a solid track with a good back-and-forth between both participants, as they discuss the filmmaking process, locations, largely amateur "cast", music, and more. Presented in its original Japanese with optional English subtitles, it can also be treated as a text commentary if you're so inclined.

The rest of the supplements continue with a Video Introduction by Shindo (7:30), who recorded this short speech for a 2011 Benefit Screening of The Naked Island at Brooklyn's BAM Rose Cinemas on the director's 99th birthday; he died just over a year later. Two accompanying Interviews are also here, featuring long-time Shindo fan Benicio Del Toro (7:43) and film scholar Akira Mizuta Lippit (17:15); both were recorded earlier this year and are worth watching, though they offer more appreciation and general comments than in-depth analysis. Last up is the film's original Trailer (2:11); like the commentary and introduction, it's presented in Japanese with optional English subtitles.

Final Thoughts

The Naked Island is equal parts beauty and despair, examining a small family unit toiling away in near isolation while the natural world spins without stopping for them. Experimental and boundary-pushing in its day, Kaneto Shindo's film has held up perfectly well during the last five decades and demands a surprising amount of attention during each and every viewing (especially the first, of course). This is a truly unique visual poem with memorable music by Hikaru Hayashi, natural performances, an unforgettable story---which is almost secondary to its style---and a repetitious but kinetic structure that mimics the exhausting routine of its central family. Criterion's Blu-ray is a predictably strong package, serving up a terrific A/V presentation and a handful of supportive extras. Highly Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.
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