Kaneto Shindo, who died last month aged 100, just before the start of a two month British Film Institute season dedicated to his career and that of long-term collaborator Yoshimura Kozaburo, spent a lot of time among the reeds, wading through mud, puddles and into woods of bamboo. He was most comfortable there, where life was reduced to its bare essentials. Shindo was born in 1912 in Hiroshima. Japan modernised dramatically over his lifetime, but he observed it at a distance, with the knowledge that all this could disappear drummed into him from childhood after what had happened to his hometown. His subjects in the 49 films he made, ranging from melodramas to horror stories to erotic fictions, were those society had rejected or brutalised, who were now struggling to survive, sometimes resorting to even more brutal methods.
Shindo's work has been eclipsed by his contemporaries, namely the "emperor" Akira Kurosawa, and the folowing generation, with its New Wave rebels Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura. This is not unjust: Shindo's work can be formally messy and his tales overly simplistic. But viewing the films today offers an insight into an oeuvre made entirely in the shadow of Hiroshima, and how this provoked feelings of guilt, paranoia and instability in survivors, but not necessarily rebellion, or a cold look at the events that led up to it.
Shindo grew up on a farm – his parents had been rich landlords but they went bankrupt, causing the family to break up – and left for Tokyo in 1928 where he entered one of the cinema studios. Eventually he progressed into the role of assistant director at Shochiku – one of the majors along with Nikkatsu and Toho – and also the home of the golden generation: Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, then at the peaks of their careers. Shindo's encounter with the latter was defining: Mizoguchi took him as assistant for The Straits of Love and Hate in 1937 and then in 1941 for The 47 Ronin. He encouraged Shindo to pursue screenwriting as a first stage to becoming a director but the war intervened, and Shindo was drafted to the Imperial Navy. Out of the group of 100 men he served with, six returned. Shindo's hometown had also been destroyed when he came back and his older sister later died from radiation sickness.
One of Shindo's first screenplays, The Ball at the Anjo House in 1947 was for his friend Kozaburo Yoshimura, who shares the BFI retrospective because the two men's careers were so intertwined – Shindo writing most of Yoshimura's scripts (as well as hundreds more for television and other directors) and Yoshimura producing many of Shindo's films. The Ball was inspired by Yoshimura's experience shortly after returning from his drafting in southeast Asia, but the story of an aristocratic family's decline and swansong party at their mansion – ending with a sad tango between daughter Setsuko Hara and her suicidal father – also drew from Shindo's heritage.
As he moved to directing, Shindo hit against the majors' increasing reluctance to back films with a so-called "dark outlook on life" when what they wanted, and what the US occupation also approved of, were morale-boosting comedies or escapist tear-jerkers. Rather than compromise as Ozu and Mizoguchi had been forced to do throughout their careers, Shindo and Yoshimura were among the first in Japan to found their own production company in 1950, Kindai Eiga Kyokai. This early phase is often misleadingly described as Shindo's "political" period, but while he always described himself as socialist, Shindo was never affiliated to any party nor involved in militant activities, and his political stance was very simple: follow those who have been left behind, whether they are prostitutes, farmers, migrant workers or serial killers. He took their side and filmed from their point of view. The 1950s was more appropriately the phase of Shindo's social dramas, as he used melodrama to explore issues and inequalities thrown up by Japan's class system, often with a female protagonist, from his first autobiographical film in 1951, Story of a Beloved Wife, to Gutter three years later, which followed a troubled, desperate young woman and her bleak experiences as a geisha.
When the US occupation ended in 1952, Japan began a delayed confrontation with the atrocities of the war and Shindo was commissioned by the Japan Teachers' Union to make the first film about the atom bomb. But Children of Hiroshima – commercially released in the US only last year – was met with a tirade of criticism for failing to point the finger at America, and the JTU commissioned a second film, this time from Hideo Sekigawa. The resulting Hiroshima, with its scenes of Japanese tourists buying victims' bones, went down much better, and was so popular it set off a wave of similar anti-American films.
The political muteness of Children of Hiroshima is startling. Shindo's young school teacher – played by his wife Nobuko Otowa, who took on so many different roles in his films, from vengeful woman, monstrous spirit, diligent farmer to desperate mother – returns four years after the atomic explosion and searches for the three survivors from her class. One is an orphan, another is dying from radiation poisoning and the last boy is the only child to have been saved, though his sister was badly injured. The dialogues have a deliberateness, so too the ponderous moments standing in front of rubble. The only moment of anger comes from an old man, now a disfigured beggar, who lashes out into the darkness, cursing "that damn A-bomb" and his bad luck.
Shindo's film was in part realist, as he used radiation victims in many of the roles, but essentially he turned the political into melodrama. In doing so, he captured the way Hiroshima was understood by many at the time – an inevitability, experienced and mourned as a natural disaster more than a planned political act.
In the 1960s, as opposition to the Security Treaty with the US intensified from a progressively radicalised student population, Shindo stopped making social dramas altogether. He filmed instead what became his biggest international success, The Naked Island, a film without dialogue, set on a barren island in the Inland Sea. Repeating the question so many faced after the bomb – what do you do when you lose everything? – The Naked Island was Shindo's answer. "It is a symbol of the world. Two human beings arrive and must make a life for themselves." The island has no drinkable water so twice a day the parents row across the sea to the nearest town, fill their buckets and head back, the wooden stick bending with the weight and digging into their backs as they carry it to the top of their hill. Through a succession of beautiful images we watch them, back and forth, farming the difficult land, surviving. The musical score is continuous, initially seeming to celebrate this simplicity but it becomes more sinister as the melody remains the same while the scenes start to tell a different story: one of their little boys dies, the wife buckles under the weight of the water buckets, tending to the crops she breaks down, sabotaging the plantations as her husband looks on.
After the success of The Naked Island, Shindo changed gear again: no more social dramas or stylised allegories but racy horror movies. His "erotic" period, continuing into the 70s with progressively diminishing returns, mirrors a turn many Japanese film-makers made, encouraged by or reacting to the emerging soft porn or "pink" films. The erotic and horror themes allowed Shindo to approach the instinct of survival from a different angle. "Political things such as class consciousness or social existence really come down to the problem of man alone," he explained. "I discovered the powerful, very fundamental force in man which sustains his survival and which can be called sexual energy." In the most striking works from this period, Onibaba in 1964 and Kuroneko four years later, Shindo was also at his most formally inventive, more playful than perfectionist with messy jump cuts and sound edits, and drawing obvious inspiration from the French New Wave.
From the 70s Shindo's inventiveness and daring had started to subside and he returned to old themes. He did not take the route of many once pioneering directors in Japan, such as Oshima or later Takeshi Kitano, whose recent films often do little more than mimic the Hollywood aesthetic. Shindo's work was always more marginal and less exportable. For his final film, Postcard, completed when he was 99, Shindo went full circle and returned to the origin of his cinema, taking a story from his experience in the navy, when nearly all his colleagues died before coming home. War marked his generation, and Shindo captured on screen one way Japan dealt with it, both obsessively and evasively..
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