Throughout his remarkably prolific, long and fascinating career, Kaneto Shindo (b. 1912) has remained at the center of major trends and turns in Japanese cinema. A sought-after art director and apprentice to Kenji Mizoguchi in the 1930s, Shindo made a name for himself in the 1940s as a prolific and popular screenwriter before working as assistant director to such iconic filmmakers as Kon Ichikawa and New Wave titans Seijun Suzuki and Yazuo Matsumoro. In 1950 Shindo formed one of Japan’s first independent production companies with actress Nobuko Otowa – who would later star in several of Shindo’s key films – and began to direct politically outspoken features with a distinct class-consciousness, focused principally upon the struggle of the lower and working classes – an interest which would culminate in his extraordinary study of a rural 20th century peasantry The Naked Island, considered by many to be Shindo’s masterpiece. Shindo’s breakthough came earlier, however, with his controversial Children of Hiroshima, the first and among the most powerful Japanese narrative films to depict the atomic bombing of Shindo’s hometown and its aftermath. Shindo’s notable embrace of period ghost stories resulted in two important and influential films, Onibaba and Kuroneko, which maintained the critical Marxist stance of his early work and inspired a new interest in folk-tales and the “primitive” as a major theme. Like his contemporary Shohei Imamura, Shindo turned to the lower depths of Japanese culture and history to question the traditional perception – in Japan and abroad – of “Japanese-ness” and to discover within it a dark vein of raw, anarchic energy. At a spry 98 years old, Shindo remains active to this day with his latest film, the powerful anti-war drama Postcard, marking a return to the subject of Hiroshima’s complex and troubling legacy. – Haden Guest
Prints of Children of Hiroshima and Live Today, Die Tomorrow provided by The Japan Foundation.
Special thanks: Jake Perlin—BAMCinematek; Grant Tompkins—the Japan Foundation, New York.
Directed by Kaneto Shindo. With Nobuko Otowa, Osamu Takizawa, Niwa Saito
Japan 1952, 35mm, b/w 97 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Recognized for his fiercely political filmmaking, Shindo was commissioned by the Japanese Teachers Union to direct a project about the atomic bombing of Japan and its horrific aftermath. The Union swiftly turned against the completed film, angry that Shindo had not been more openly critical of the American military authority. Children of Hiroshima is today recognized as an important and lasting milestone of anti-war cinema, a film able to capture the terrible magnitude of the bombing from the victim’s perspective and using disarmingly simple means. The profound sense of loss and unprecedented human tragedy is given added force by Shindo’s intimate portrait of his native Hiroshima.
Directed by Kaneto Shindo. With Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Sato
Japan 1964, 35mm, b/w 103 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Shindo’s best known film, and original screenplay, is a frightening meditation on avarice and the dark, primordial bonds of family. One of the great jidai-eiki of the Sixties, Onibaba presents a nightmare vision of 16th century rural Japan torn apart by the chaos of perpetual war and famine. The fervent Marxism of Shindo’s early work underlies the dark fable of a sub-proletariat mother and daughter who subsist and survive by murdering desperate samurai in order to sell their arms and armour. The crypic folk tale quality of the film is heightened by the haunting, propulsive score by the little known master composer Hiraku Hayashi and by Shindo’s dramatic use of expressive landscapes.
Directed by Kaneto Shindo. With Kichiemon Nakamura, Nobuko Otowa, Kiwako Taichi
Japan 1968, 35mm, b/w 95 min. Japanese with English subtitles
A loose adaptation of a Japanese ghost tale, Kuroneko returns to the war torn medieval Japan of Onibaba to offer a mesmerizing and unnerving revenge story that follows two peasant women transformed by occult forces into bewitching feline demons hunting down the samurai rogues who destroyed their lives and livelihood. Shindo’s extraordinary black and white widescreen cinematography gives a strange beauty to the ruthless acts of cruelty exacted by the women. An only recently rediscovered classic of Sixties Japanese genre cinema, Kuroneko can be read as a radical feminist response to the samurai film.
Directed by Kaneto Shindo. With Daijiro Harada, Nobuko Otowa, Keiko Toril
Japan 1970, 35mm, b/w, 113 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Almost a decade before Imamura’s Vengeance Is Mine, Shindo crafted this fascinating documentary-inspired portrait of a serial killer that drew upon the actual events of a troubled nineteen-year old who went on a murderous rampage, killing four people with a pistol stolen from an US navel base. Shindo’s meticulous research into the background of the anti-social youth, including extensive interviews with his mother and acquaintances, brings a rare authenticity of unexpected detail to a film that also reads as an astute critique of American imperialism and reckless tabloid journalism.
Directed by Kaneto Shindo. With Nobuko Otowa, Taiji Tonoyama, Shinji Tanaka
Japan 1960, 35mm, b/w 96 min. Japanese with English subtitles.
The Naked Island is a fascinating early hybridization of documentary and fiction that takes to an important extreme the focus of Shindo’s early films on Japan’s working classes. An epic yet intimate chronicle of the daily lives and struggles of a farmer family on a remote Inland Sea island, Shindo’s internationally celebrated film revitalized the legacy of Flaherty’s Man of Aran and sharply divided Western critics, with the majority embracing Shindo’s poetic ethnography while others, led by Pauline Kael, critiqued the film as prurient exoticism. Today Shindo’s innovative use of non-actors to restage their own lives seems ahead of its time, equally innovative as the film’s use of a lush yet modernist score and near avoidance of dialogue- another remarkable updating and reinvention of Flaherty’s literary realism.
Directed by Kaneto Shindo. With Etsushi Toyokawa, Shinobu Otake, Naomasa Musaka
Japan 2010, 35mm, color, 114 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Shindo’s latest and forty-ninth film follows the wayward path of the eponymous postcard written by a Japanese soldier to his young wife on the eve of his departure for the Pacific theater. Partially inspired by Shindo’s own experience as one of only six soldiers to survive his one hundred man unit, Postcard is a visually lush and unabashedly anti-war melodrama that wears its heart on its sleeve without tipping into sentimental excess, balancing its emotional intensity with a with moments of off-beat, almost ribald, humor.