Spirits in the Material World: Kaneto Shindo at BAM

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04/13/2011 4:00 AM |

The Urge for Survival: Kaneto Shindo

April 22-May 5 at BAM

The world’s second-oldest active filmmaker turns 99 during a BAM retro that begins with a weeklong run for Children of Hiroshima—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.

Also running April 22-28, The Naked Island (1960) appropriates the language of the poetic-ethnographic documentary for existential metaphor. Favoring musical, task-oriented crosscutting over dialogue, Shindo spends a year with a family who live alone on a rocky island in the midst of a bustling harbor, across which mom and dad constantly row their single-oar boat to fetch fresh water, which the dry soil absorbs as soon as they can carry it up the terraced hillsides in heroic low-angle shots, suspenseful and Sisyphean. It’s Shindo’s tribute to heroic persistence in the face of encroaching modernity, made persuasive by the isosceles-triangular arrangement of the
widescreen frame for thrilling, epic depth.

The series continues with another week of selections from a varied career, starting with Onibaba (1964) and its similarly hermetic allegorical setting (was the self-contained scope of Shindo’s films a function of his status as the head of his own independent production company?). The hot-ass jazz score, with bongos and shrieks, keeps time as skunk-haired Otowa and her daughter-in-law (the former’s son and the latter’s husband has been forcibly conscripted) pick off the stray samurai who wander into the windswept, head-high grass that surrounds their hut. No actor in a Shindo movie ever had to ask, “What’s my motivation?”—eating, drinking and rutting are the measure of the days here as elsewhere. Onibaba, which recalls Woman in the Dunes ‘s intensely tactile ecosystem-as-metaphor, reveals folklore’s very earthy origins, as sexual rivalry fuels a mythic haunting.

Otowa and the wife of her absent son lash out at militarism again in Kuroneko (1968), this time from a breeze-blown bamboo forest (Shindo, like Kurosawa, is a great director of wind). The stagey spotlighting and billowing smoke machines are of a piece with the Japanese New Wave’s avant-garde riffs on classical genres: here the women really are ghosts, reincarnated casualties of senseless war wreaking equally futile revenge by luring samurai to bloody, carnal graves. But they’re spirits in a world as material as elsewhere in Shindo. When, in the opening scene, death arrives on their doorstep, it does so in the form of a soldier who lunges for the rice pot first.