By Robert Nishimura | Press Play June 4, 2012 at 9:20AM
In the early morning of May 29th, Japan lost its oldest living director, and in my opinion one of the best. Kaneto Shindô lived to be 100 years old, as old as Nikkatsu Studios, who would later employ Shindô before he decided to quit the studio system altogether. Born on April 22, 1912 in Hiroshima prefecture, Shindô began working as an assistant director and screenwriter in 1934, collaborating with such cinematic luminaries as Kenji Mizoguchi, Keisuke Kinoshita, and Kōzaburō Yoshimura. Shindô's first film as a director was Story of a Beloved Wife in 1951. That film’s star, Nobuko Otowa, whom he had met while working on Kōzaburō Yoshimura's The Tale of Genji, immediately became his leading lady in life and in all his subsequent films. Although Kaneto Shindô had been successful working as a writer and director for various major studios throughout the 1950′s, by 1960 Shindô was starting to find his true voice as a director. He founded his own production company, Kindai Eiga Kaikyo (Modern Film Association), to independently finance what would be his first masterpiece, The Naked Island. He followed that with Human, an underrated, yet equally compelling little “love story” set on a boat lost at sea.
Naturally, without the help of the major studios to back him, Shindô had trouble exhibiting the film. At that same time, the fledgling independent cinema group, The Art Theatre Guild, was gaining influence with their single art-house cinema in Shinjuku. By that point, the ATG was primarily showing foreign films that the majors couldn’t care less about (Fellini, Godard, Bergman, and other no-name hacks), but Shindô’s Human was to be the first domestic title for ATG exhibition (along with Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Pitfall). It was the beginning of the most significant period in Japanese film history, and it helped kick start a movement that would completely change Japanese cinema. With the help of the ATG to finance Shindô's films, he was able to make the kind of films he wanted to make without restrictions. The result was one of the most impressive bodies of work from any director, in such a short amount of time. Coincidentally, when the ATG finally dissolved in 1992, it was Shindô’s film, The Strange Tale of Oyuki, that closed the curtain.
Based on Nogami Yaeko’s original novel, The Neptune, which was based on real-life events, Human follows four people stuck on a small fishing boat adrift at sea. After running out of fuel and losing their rudder in a storm, they find themselves lost with no way to navigate, and very little food. It’s also during Obon, a weeklong Japanese religious holiday, which means no one will be out looking for them during the festival. As they drift farther and farther out to sea, their provisions running out, they turn on each other. They immediately split into two groups, the Captain and his young nephew (Taiji Tonoyama and Kei Yamamoto, respectively), and headstrong Hachizo (Kei Satô) and Gorosuke (Nobuko Otowa), the woman who is corrupted by Hachizo as the film progresses. Everyone becomes increasingly desperate as they realize the inevitable conclusion of their situation.
It's unfortunate that it takes a director's death to make most people aware the director even existed. One of Shindô’s notable fans was actor Benicio Del Toro, who presented retrospectives of Shindo’s work both in Los Angeles and Puerto Rico to celebrate Shindo’s 100th birthday. But Criterion had always included Shindô in its catalogue, alongside the other masters of Japanese film. Criterion's release of Onibaba was my first introduction to his work, and provoked me to seek out as much as I could from Japan's first indie darling. Criterion may be gearing up to release more from Shindô, given the recent tragic news, and they certainly have many amazing films to choose from. Human would be a good addition if Criterion is looking for titles. It’s really a remarkably distilled and tightly edited film that never fails to engage me and make me hungry for more Kaneto Shindô (as well as food) whenever I watch it.