It's a black-and-white Japanese art film from 1960 with no dialogue, about farmers on an island. It's not bad. It's more watchable than it sounds.
For a start, it was Kaneto Shindo's first major international success. Close to bankruptcy at the time, he gambled everything on this obscure-sounding project that you'd expect no one in the world ever to watch... but it won awards at international film festivals, including the Grand Prize at the 1961 Moscow Film Festival, and Shindo managed to sell it all around the world. You can't say the guy lacked guts.
Shindo incidentally is a major figure in Japanese cinema, if only due to his longevity. Born in Hiroshima in 1912, he was working as an assistant to Kenji Mizoguchi in the 1930s... and yet in 2011 (i.e. last year) his film Postcard was Japan's submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. (It didn't make the shortlist.) Unbelievable. Has anyone checked to see if he casts a reflection in a mirror? His many other films include Kuroneko
, Onibaba, Children of Hiroshima and By Player
(which I disliked, but takes us behind the scenes of the making of this film).
Anyway, back to today's movie. I've seen it said that Shindo made it as a tribute to his parents, but this was on the internet, so might be a lie. Nevertheless this is still a man who remembered a way of life that had disappeared decades ago in the war and the American occupation. He himself has called it "a cinematic poem to try and capture the life of human beings struggling like ants against the forces of nature." There's a father (Taiji Tonoyama), a mother (Nobuko Otowa) and their two sons. They live on a speck in the Setonaikai archipelago in south-west Japan, working the ground every day and feeding themselves from what they grow and catch. It's a subsistence life. They exist. Every day, they work in the fields. They don't talk, although you knew that already. The boys go to school on the mainland, for which Otowa ferries them across in a rowboat every morning.
The plot is... usually nothing. They farm. That's nearly it. Something dramatic happens at the seventy-minute mark, but otherwise we're watching farmers farm. We live their lives, basically. It's quite soothing, although the only reason I can say that is because I'm not the one digging on the hillside from sunrise to sunset. The scenery's lovely, obviously, and the rhythm of their life is relaxing to watch. You find yourself paying attention to little things like the odd sounds made by water, e.g. the sizzle of rain or the rustle of a rowboat moving through the waves. I was also struck by the way that one of the sons doesn't shout for his parents even in an emergency, because he knows they're out at sea in a boat and wouldn't be able to hear him. Instead he stands on a cliff edge and windmills one arm.
It's not a silent film, though. People talk in silent films. We just can't hear them. This is the opposite, although I should point out that there's some improvised-sounding dialogue at 54 minutes ("yoisho" "ooo" "oah" "aaah" + laughter) and then later in the film, singing and crying. "Yoisho" in that context can be translated as a bit like "heigh-ho".
Obviously the point of the movie is that it's holding up a nearly vanished way of life to compare it to our own. There are two places where this comparison becomes explicit, one in the final act and one earlier when the family goes to town. They have a fish to sell. (It looks grumpy in its bucket.) They ride in a cable car, eat in a restaurant and see a woman in tight black clothes dancing on TV. They seem relatively au fait with the concept of civilisation and they're not ignorant hicks or anything... but their excursion soon ends and back they go to their island.
Incidentally the only nudity involves two small boys having a bath. The title doesn't mean what you were all thinking.
Would I recommend it? Sort of, yes. If you know what you're in for, it's an experience. It manages to say things about the line between humanity and being a living automaton, which isn't a modern invention. It attracted a fair amount of comment at the time, with some people praising its simplicity and lack of sentimentality, while others like Nagisa Oshima seem to have got their backs up and said that its success was a "reflection of the image foreign people hold of Japanese people." Some people were stunned by it and have never forgotten it. Others think it's a bit dull and can't see what all the fuss is about. Me, I think it works far better than it deserves to. You'd run a mile if someone told you a two-line synopsis of the film... but I wasn't bored and I quite enjoyed it, although I will admit that it's the kind of relaxing experience that encourages your mind to wander on to other matters. It's like taking a long bath, maybe, except that it's also an artistic achievement. In 1963 it was nominated as best film from any source at the BAFTAs.
I've never seen another movie like it, at least.