Kaneto Shindō – An Admirable Career in Film

As early as 1927 (some claim it was in 1934), Shindō began working in the Shinkō Studios as an assistant film developer in a film laboratory. The last film he directed and wrote the screenplay for isPostcard(2010), was shown in the official program of film festivals in Moscow and Tokyo, where it won the jury’s special recognition award

Even those film lovers who know of the important Japanese author Kaneto Shindo, who was born in Hiroshima on April 28, 1912, will probably think that he is a slightly forgotten classic whose only film shown in domestic film theaters (four and a half decades ago), his most famous and probably best film Onibaba (1964), is a visually impressive story about two peasants. The mother and daughter earn a living after the war by seducing and murdering samurais and then selling their belongings in a swamp surrounded by tall grass that hides people and, with its constant movement, becomes an equally active protagonist in the film. This movie brought him international fame, but very few today would think of him as the man who spent the longest amount of time working on films (even though the Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira is older than him, he took a fourteen year hiatus during which he made no films). According to some sources, as soon as he had finished high school in 1927 (others claim it was 1934), Shindō began working in the Shinkō Studios as assistant film developer in a film laboratory. The last film he directed and wrote the screenplay for is Postcard from 2010, which was shown in the official program of film festivals in Moscow and Tokyo, where it won the jury’s special recognition.

The reason he began working at such an early age was probably related to the grave financial situation of his family. The Shindō family used to be rich and own lots of land, but they went bankrupt, and so Kaneto’s parents survived by working in the fields. However, his film career steadily progressed, and in the second half of the 1930’s he became an assistant set designer, most often working on films directed by the great Kenji Mizoguchi whom he often mentioned as his biggest role model. At the same time he began writing screenplays, out of which more than a hundred and fifty were made into films during his long career. It all began in 1940, when his screenplays were directed by famous directors such as Kon Ichikawa or Tadashi Imaiji, and finally Mizoguchi himself. Shindō got drafted in WW II, which together with memories of a difficult childhood, as well as the shock caused by the atomic bomb that was dropped on his hometown, had a significant influence on the formation of his worldview and extremely leftist political viewpoints, and finally his film work.

After the war, he most often worked with the director Kōzaburō Yoshimuro (1911-2000), and soon, along with him and the actress Nobuko Otowa (1925-1994), founded an independent production company in which, in 1951, he made his directorial debut with the film Story of a Beloved Wife, inspired by the premature death of his first wife. Otowa played strong female characters in most of his forty films and became his second wife. As soon as he began directing, he worked very intensely, directing fifteen films in the first ten years of his career. Several of those brought him international acclaim and awards: Children of Hiroshima (Gembaku no ko, 1952) was shown in the official program of Cannes, and in Karlovy Vary he received a Peace Award. In the story, the protagonist returns to Hiroshima, which she had left after the atom bomb catastrophe, and finally faces the past. The author combined the feature film with documentary footage, thus creating a complex portrayal of the horrors that took place in his hometown and a deep analysis of what the people went through. The horror of a new possible atom bomb catastrophe is the topic of one of the films shown in this program - Daigo Fukuryū Maru (1959). The story is based on a real event, when the Japanese fishing boat Daigo Fukuryū Maru came to close to the Bikini atoll where the American army was testing its hydrogen bombs in 1954. Already apparent in these films are some essential components of his directoring style: he tries to show important and dramatic events in a way that places interesting characters into broader social contexts and important events, leaving it up to viewers to draw their own conclusions. At the same time he relied on editing contrasts between stillness and movement of the camera within a single sequence. In a similar way, by making connections through a sense of contrast, he connects his traumatic experiences (difficulties in childhood, war and the atom bomb disaster) with Japan’s poverty and problems before and - especially - after WWII.

In his film The Naked Island (Hadaka no shima, 1961), ascetic reduction of those elements and a unique stylization enabled him to reach great achievements that give the impression of documentarism. The film won the Grand Prix (together with the Soviet Chistoe nebo by Grigori Chukhrai) at the Moscow Film Festival. In it, he dealt with a poor family living on an isolated island year round. Giving up on dialogue, he showed his protagonists’ destiny through their facial expressions. Through the visual attractiveness of the picture and contrasting his characters with the vital musical contributions of Hikaru Hayashi, Shindō created an impressive film poem, and developed tools for story telling that he later used in other valuable films such as Onibaba and also Black Cat (Yabu no naka no kuroneko, 1968), Love Betrayed (Kokoro, 1973), The Life of Chikuzan (Chikuzan hitori tabi, 1977), The Hirozon (Chihei-sen, 1984), A Last Note (Gogo no Yuigon-jo, 1995), The Geisha House (Omocha, 1999) and Owl (Fukuro, 2003). (Tomislav Kurelec)