"The Urge for Survival: Kaneto Shindo"

David Hudson

Updated through 4/23.

"A movie that has waited nearly 60 years for a US theatrical premiere and could hardly be more timely, Kaneto Shindo's Children of Hiroshima is a somber melodrama about the aftereffects of atomic radiation, shot on location in the half-rebuilt site of the world's first nuclear catastrophe." J Hoberman in the Voice: "Showing for a week at BAM in advance of an 11-film Shindo retrospective (The Urge for Survival, which includes a feature the 99-year-old director completed this year), Hiroshima is a priori heartrending."

The L's Mark Asch notes that "opening night is now a benefit screening, acknowledging the layers of relevance accrued since the film was programmed. This 1952 atomic-fallout drama, where news-value location footage and statistics-quoting supporting cast coexist with social-issue-movie score and serious voiceover, stars moonfaced Nobuko Otowa, Shindo's wife and a star of all the films in the series save his most recent (she died in 1994). She plays a schoolteacher returning to her hometown (which really was Shindo's) to reopen, then seal for good, the scars beneath postwar development — there are daring cuts from, say, a burned, blinded beggar to a racing speedboat. The pileup of traumas (widows and orphans; disfigurement and radiation sickness) lacks the tight, domestic focus of Imamura's later Black Rain, and the movie's so generic Otowa at one point describes her home as a place where the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. But it's often strikingly directed, as Shindo tests techniques he'd later use when applying his didactic outlook to abstract arthouse scenarios."

"Mr Shindo combines austerity and sensuality to stirring, sometimes mesmerizing effect," writes AO Scott in the New York Times. "The beauty of the compositions in Children of Hiroshima — the clarity of focus, the graceful balance within the frames — provides some relief from the grimness of his subject, though the film's aesthetic texture also undermines the political message that Mr Shindo's sponsors hoped would come through. He contemplates Japan's wartime experience with regret, rather than indignation."

Michael Atkinson for Moving Image Source: "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 US, 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."


If you can't attend the entire series, the "one you should drop everything for," argues David Fear in Time Out New York, "is 1960's The Naked Island, perhaps the ultimate poetic-ruralism masterpiece not made by someone named Malick. Following two peasants (Otowa and fellow Shindô regular [Taiji] Tonoyama) on their daily labors, the filmmaker finds the familiar in a rigorous setup of toil, rinse, repeat — no dialogue is spoken for the first 40 minutes — until tragedy quietly strikes. Graceful goodbyes are said, then life moves on. The characters' urge for survival wins out, even if you're left shattered."

Acquarello on The Naked Island in 2006 for Masters of Cinema: "The film proved to be a transformative experience for Shindo and Kindai Eiga Kyokai, which had not only redeemed the struggling independent production company from the brink of financial collapse and ensured its continued operation, but also impressed upon Shindo the virtues of a collectivist approach to filmmaking, implementing an isolated, communal environment for the production crew during the course of filming in order to harness the personal conflict and travails inherent in their situational intimacy towards a focused, creative synergy for the project. It is this humbled, collective strength borne of shared struggle and sacrifice that is poignantly articulated in the farmers’ return to the familiar, wordless ritual after their heartbreaking tragedy: the defiant resilience of a socially disposable, anonymous people that cannot be annihilated by cultural suppression, unconscionable acts of reckless inhumanity, or the inconstancy of fate."

At Capital New York, Simon Abrams: "As period pieces and horror films, Kuroneko and Onibaba are both great ways to break into Shindo's dense oeuvre. His lithe camerawork, which emphasizes fluid tracking shots and elaborate images shot using cranes, is showcased well here, in films where what initially looks seductive is later revealed to be oppressive."

On a semi-related note, Mark Schilling notes in the Japan Times that Seiichi Motohashi's Naja no Mura (Nadya's Village) and 2002's Arekusei to Izumi (Alexei and the Spring) have both "received honors and plaudits abroad, including a best-documentary prize for Nadya's Village at the 1998 Hawaii International Film Festival. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, Motohashi's films, together with 15 others on nuclear themes, will screen at Theater Pole-Pole Higashi-Nakano in Nakano Ward, Tokyo, from April 23 to May 6… While concerned about the status of the Fukushima reactors, Motohashi is more worried by potential future temblors. 'If a big quake hits Shizuoka, as is being predicted, it could affect the nuclear plant in Hamaoka — and that would put Tokyo in danger.'"

Updates, 4/23: For the Wall Street Journal, Bruce Bennett asks Benicio Del Toro about his role in getting this retrospective up and running: "I'm not a scholar on Japan or Japanese movies, but I've seen a bit of Shindo and I'd just like to support a filmmaker that should be as well known as many other Japanese filmmakers that are known here."

Ilya Tovbis at the House Next Door on Children of Hiroshima: "As we begin to wonder if benevolent ignorance is the disheartening best we can expect to salvage from the atomic ruins, Shindō offers a revelatory final act, as striking for its clearheaded call to action and promise of a better future as for its cruel admonition that the past can never truly be undone."

"In the film's most memorable sequence," writes Zack Friedman for the BOMBlog, "a montage of images called forth as Takako imagines the moment the bomb dropped, we come closer to her perspective. We see an ordinary morning becoming an apocalypse, flesh melting, plants withering, and footage of the Enola Gay and the mushroom cloud. The succession of horrific images is her projection of what must have occurred as well as Shindo's cinematographic attempt to represent the horror of the bomb. For both character and filmmaker, the tragedy must be commemorated, yet the witnesses can get only so far out of their own heads."

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