The prolific Japanese screenwriter and director Kaneto Shindo, who died in May shortly after his 100th birthday, was an elemental filmmaker whose economy and discipline become more impressive with every passing year. (With every bloated blockbuster and incompetent indie, in fact.) An impeccable craftsman and an unwavering humanist, Shindo excised everything extraneous, from superfluous dialogue to secondary characters to subplots. That left ample room, in his sure hands, for mystery, ambiguity and terrifying profundity.
His best films, notably the three black-and-white gems in Kaneto Shindo Remembered chosen by Yerba Buena Center For the Arts film curator Joel Shepard, examine the tightrope between responsibility to one's self (and one's own needs, no matter how base) and one's responsibility to others, be they relatives or the larger community. Shindo was marked forever, though not embittered, by the destruction of Hiroshima. His finest work displays a remarkable willingness to understand even the most callous behavior, an approach that engages the viewer's empathy without speechifying or moralizing.
The Naked Island
The Naked Island (Aug. 9, 7:30pm and Aug. 12, 2pm), made for a pittance in 1960 when Shindo's production company was on the verge of going belly-up, is a mesmerizing, nonverbal study of a stoic couple with two young sons living atop a hilly island. At first glance, their self-sufficient life in scenic solitude seems idyllic. Then we see, again and again, the extraordinary physical labor required to collect and carry fresh water, row it home, and lug it up a slender path -- without spilling! -- for crops, goats, chickens and themselves. The work is backbreaking and unrelenting, yet Shindo tempers it by granting us the pleasure of watching elegant, practiced movements.
You have to figure out the relationships between people in Shindo's films, not only how individuals are related but how they relate to each other. Divining the balance of power and the division of labor (and emotion), in this case between the mother and father, is endlessly fascinating. The persistence on display -- which mirrors the life-goes-on determination of the Japanese people after the war -- is a vote of affirmation for the continuance of civilization. Who says art can't be simultaneously sobering and inspiring?
Civilization has destroyed itself and the world is upside down in the war-ridden medieval period of Onibaba (The Hole, Aug. 23, 7:30pm and Aug. 26, 2pm). In a vast, grassy field, a fierce mother (Nobuko Otawa) and sexy daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) prey on wounded and separated samurai, robbing the bodies of armor and weapons (which they fence for millet) before dumping them into a pit. Their primitivism approaches barbarism, and the return of an equally devious and feral man from the distant battles, bearing news that their son/husband is dead, does nothing to moderate the women's behavior.
The younger woman, who's been without a man for longer than we can guess, can't resist sneaking out to the neighbor's hut in the middle of the night for bouts of raw sex. (Shindo uses the roar of wind through the high grass to evoke lust as a force of nature, miraculously avoiding cliché or self-parody.) The mother-in-law, afraid of eventually losing her daughter-in-law and being abandoned to her own devices, and recognizing the absence of laws (and law enforcers), masquerades as a demon to keep the carnal conspirators apart. What could go wrong? Plenty. Despite, or because of, its simplicity, Onibaba (1964) is a riveting parable of the tenuous line that separates human beings from animals, or worse.
Refreshingly, Shindo's great films don't present women as victims, even when they are persecuted. Kuroneko (Black Cat, Aug. 16, 7:30pm and Aug. 19, 2pm) begins with a rape —- a double rape, in fact -- and a double killing at the hands of a band of ravenous samurai. The murdered women return as ghosts with the sole goal of seducing and killing samurai. The spoiled emperor orders the head of his samurai to destroy the ghosts who are thinning his forces; he, in turn, delegates the job to a newly minted samurai who proved his bravery against a bigger, stronger man.
The twist -- there had to be one, right? -- is the would-be slayer recognizes the ghosts as his lovely wife (Kiwako Taichi) and mother (the redoubtable Nobuko Otawa, again). With breathtaking audacity and dazzling seamlessness, Shindo grants husband and (ghost) wife a lengthy romantic interlude, wrapped in a lush score. Alas, this dream cannot continue indefinitely, for samurai and ghost have orders to destroy the other.
The weak, amoral samurai in Onibaba and Kuroneko can be seen not only as avatars of corruption but as casualties of war. The ordinary people, meanwhile, are entrusted with keeping the flame of society burning. This mini-retrospective is the ideal introduction to a thoroughly modern filmmaker who camouflaged deep themes with vivid atmospheres and limited dialogue.
Kaneto Shindo Remembered runs August 19-26, 2012 at Yerba Buena Center For the Arts in San Francisco. For more information visit ybca.org.