interview and portraits by NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA
Sarah Bull, translation
KANETO SHINDO, who was born in Hiroshima on April 28, 1912, will soon be 100 years old. Having directed over 40 films — and still active: his latest movie, Postcard, was released in 2010 — Shindo is a living legend in the history of Japanese cinema. He is considered a master of black-and-white cinema, but is best known for his portrayal of universal emotion and his unsparing treatment of human tragedy and personal loss, particularly in such films as Children of Hiroshima (1952), which chronicles the city’s apocalyptic reduction to rubble, and Lucky Dragon N°5 (1958), based on a true story of the fishermen who died from radiation poisoning after the US test on Bikini Island. Given today’s politics, it’s timely that one of his most important films, The Naked Island (1960), is to be released on DVD internationally this year, and for us to rediscover the power of his apocalyptic films.
NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA — I’d like to start by talking about nuclear power in Japan.
KANETO SHINDO — The problem is that the Japanese government made nuclear power the core component of Japan’s energy supply. Now they realize what a mistake that was and they’re changing direction. Because of the incident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, they can no longer satisfy the demand for energy and they’re trying to get people to cut back as much as possible on their electricity usage. Coming up with an acceptable new energy plan is a huge political challenge. There’s grave doubt as to whether enough power can be generated by another method. They keep talking about experts. I don’t know how good these experts are, but even they say that generating enough energy is going to be extremely difficult. It’s a serious problem. A long time ago I made the film Children of Hiroshima, a fictional version of what happened when they dropped the bomb there. It was made as a semi-documentary filmed in Hiroshima, and all the actors except for Nobuko Otowa were from the city. One atomic bomb was powerful enough to reduce Hiroshima to rubble. The radiation spread all over and many people who were exposed to it died — well over 100,000 of them. The fact that an atomic bomb was a nuclear weapon wasn’t really a big issue, because there wasn’t any serious scientific analysis about the after-effects of those bombs. That’s come back to haunt us with this latest incident in Japan. Various parties claim that even now they’re conducting thorough analyses of atomic bombs, but people wonder if they’re really qualified to do these studies, because there’s never any clear conclusions. I think that the issue is so big that it will basically decide Japan’s future as a country. But at the moment Japan’s politicians, and everyone else in Japan, are at a complete loss as to how to handle the nuclear issue and the radiation issue.
NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA — In 1958 you released the film Lucky Dragon No. 5, the only fictional film ever made about Operation Castle Bravo, the detonation of the hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll in 1954. The Japanese government still won’t acknowledge the fact that the crew of the fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5), on whom you based the film, suffered from radiation poisoning. In 1955 the American government handed over nuclear power technology to the Japanese government to generate electricity in Japan, under the condition that they never acknowledge what happened to the crew of that boat.
KANETO SHINDO — I felt terrible about the hydrogen bomb experiment on Bikini Atoll, about the fishermen on the Lucky Dragon No. 5 being exposed to radiation. I wanted to make a film about what actually happened. The cast was comprised only of actors, but I had them play out the things that actually happened. I wanted to go further than a documentary and look deeper into the horror of atomic radiation. I wanted to understand what the people involved did and why they did it. My idea was that people face the reality of situations in innovative ways. People all over the world saw the film. This past spring I showed it to an American audience in New York, and now it will be shown perhaps dozens of times all around the world. But when you look at the position of most countries, the question isn’t if but how well they’ll use nuclear power. The incident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant has made people all over the world think about what nuclear power really means. But a lot of countries run on nuclear power and it’s still not a major issue in many of them.
NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA — The composer Hikaru Hayashi wrote the music for Lucky Dragon No. 5. How did you come to meet him?
KANETO SHINDO — He was young and hadn’t made a name for himself yet — he was just working with various young theater groups. But he had composed a piece of music called Genbaku Shokei (Beautiful View of an Atomic Bomb) and when I heard it I wanted him to compose something for me.
NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA — When was that?
KANETO SHINDO — A couple of years before I made Lucky Dragon No. 5. I asked him if he would have a go at it. He worked so hard. It was as if he’d been dreaming of doing it. It’s great music. It’s not so much a case of creating a theme, but the music invokes a sense of awe about nuclear power, and it approaches the nuclear issue in a very fresh way.
NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA — The music for your film The Naked Island was also composed by Hikaru Hayashi. I found an EP of the music in Paris last year. It must be at least 40 years old!
KANETO SHINDO — Well, since Lucky Dragon No. 5 went so well, I had the idea that I would make “The Naked Island” with no dialogue, no words, no script — the visual imagery would be everything. The music made it work. From the beginning there was no script, no one telling the story. It was just visual imagery. I wanted the music to carry the film, to support the visual imagery. I told Hikaru Hayashi that it all had to be expressed through the music. He came on location with us to a lonely island in the Seto Inland Sea. I know nothing about music so there was no way for me to communicate what I wanted. I don’t understand how it works. But as we filmed he composed the music and it worked incredibly well.
NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA — For the last 40 years Hikaru Hayashi is the only composer who has written music for your films. You must have an incredible emotional bond with him.
KANETO SHINDO — We share a kind of sensibility. He has an amazing love for Japanese music — the music of Shinto festivals, the kind of music that seems to seep out of Japan’s soil. We have a great deal in common.
NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA — You always shoot your films in summer — and the people in them are always sweating. Is there a reason for that?
KANETO SHINDO — Normally when directors want to show people sweating they make the beads of sweat with make-up. But I don’t — I wait for the sweat to appear of its own accord. For someone to really sweat, it has to come from the heart, to seep out of the heart. You don’t sweat unless you’re actually working hard. You can’t capture physical labor on camera if someone is just pretending to do physical labor. In The Naked Island people are actually carrying water to the fields, dribbling it onto the dry fields, and the land drinks the water in. It comes down to whether the land wins or the people win. The land drinks the water and people keep giving it more, until the land almost begs them to stop.
NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA — Does the actor’s sweat symbolize the same thing the dribbling water does?
KANETO SHINDO — The land is the heart so they give it water. That’s the way people live, according to my philosophy.
NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA — Let’s talk about your philosophy. Your films go beyond the Christian notions of good and evil, and man and woman, and show how people really live, without wrapping it all up in a pretty package. Like Akira Kurosawa, you go beyond neat Christian concepts. In The Life of Chikuzan, for example, a man has talent but no one recognizes it.
KANETO SHINDO — People can only move forward a step at a time. They can’t move forward two or three steps in one go. No matter how much effort they put in, it’s still one step at a time, one and then another. That’s what it is to live. And that’s my job, to work one step at a time. All of my films — The Naked Island, Lucky Dragon No. 5 — are about moving forward from one step to
NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA — You portrayed poverty in Live Today, Die Tomorrow.
KANETO SHINDO — Yes, but why poverty? Because of the unfairness of it, what it entails. Some people are poor, others aren’t. I’m not a communist, and I’m not touting any other doctrine, but people have to be made aware that it is unfair.
NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA — There are no happy endings in your films, except in your last film, Postcard. I was so moved by it. It gave me hope for the future. But your other films don’t have happy endings, and I’ve always wondered why.
KANETO SHINDO — Well, I want to make it so that there’s a happy ending precisely because there isn’t one. It’s why I put so much effort into making my films. When you portray a world without happy endings, you change that world and make it into more of a place that does have happy endings. The people who can’t do anything, who can only move forward one step at a time, maybe only half a step — I want to say to these people that they too can have hope, that if they stand tall and move forward they too can get there. So in The Naked Island the couple experiences despair in the evening, but in the morning hope arrives and they’re OK. In the morning they’re exhausted and it takes massive effort from them just to take a bath, but hope does come. It’s something that’s decided by God.
NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA — One of the major themes in your work is the eros of women. Your film Shukuzu, the story about a Geisha, is about feminism. But the woman in it does attract us, physically.
KANETO SHINDO — I think women are the center of the world. The protagonist in Postcard sends a simple message by postcard to her husband, who is in the army, headed for Manila: “The festival is today, but it has no charm because you’re not here.” That got to me. The woman’s husband is more important to her than anyone else. She says, “Because you’re not here I can’t feel the charm of life. I can’t enjoy it. I don’t see the purpose in living.” She knows he can’t write back so she says, “If you live and come back to me, tell me if you got this postcard.”
NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA — Did you mean everything to Nobuko Otowa?
KANETO SHINDO — Yes.
NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA — That Nobuko Otowa couldn’t live without you?
KANETO SHINDO — That’s right. I believe that she would have thought that to be the case. In Postcard the soldier thinks that a person with that kind of importance to someone else will probably die. So he asks a fellow soldier that if he does die to tell his wife he will come back as a spirit and look after her. In the end the soldier doesn’t even make it to Manila — an American submarine sinks his ship. He dies and not even his ashes are returned to his wife. He dies and is of no help to her, even though he said he would come back as a spirit and help her. There are no spirits, so he can’t help her. Rather than helping his wife Tomoko, he makes her unhappy. He ruins her whole life. He had a job, he was the breadwinner of the family, but when the breadwinner leaves a family it falls apart.
NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA — I know that when you were young your father went bankrupt, which led to your family losing your house in Hiroshima and eventually falling apart. You never lost your love for your mother, but you did lose all the feeling you had for your father.
KANETO SHINDO — There was a field in front of that house. In the fall we would harvest rice. Because we could plant two crops a year, we also planted wheat, but first we had to dig up the clumps of rice stubble. My mother was always busy, because she had to cook for everyone. She’d come home and cut Japanese radishes, and carrots. While the meal was cooking she’d go outside and dig up rice clumps, one clump after another, and then run back inside and check how the cooking was going, and then run back outside to dig up more clumps of rice — tens of thousands of clumps, so many that it made you dizzy. My mother didn’t look ahead — she just dug up the clump in front of her. My father and my elder brothers worked in the other fields, not in the one where my mother dug up the clumps. That was my mother’s job. Eventually my mother would get to the end of it, after digging up tens of thousands of clumps of rice stubble. But she wasn’t like people are nowadays. She wouldn’t say, “Look at how hard I work, in the field and at home preparing meals.” I was the youngest child and I was always with her, which is how I know all this. And she died without saying anything about it. That wouldn’t be the case nowadays. I imagine that today people would die saying, “I was forced to go out in the field and dig.” My mother died without saying anything like that. I’d like to write something about it.
KANETO SHINDO [KANETO SHINDO’S GRANDDAUGHTER] — Did seeing your mother do all that physical labor give you a guiding principle, one you live by?
KANETO SHINDO — Yes, but there were other wonderful things about my mother, things she didn’t talk about, even when she was dying.
I used to kick and hit her when I was growing up, asking her for this or that. I should really make films about nothing but my mother. But if I did, no one would watch them.
NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA — But Tree Without Leaves (Rakuyoju) is about your mother, no?
KANETO SHINDO — Well, Tree Without Leaves is a bit more about digging up one clump and then another. I exist because my mother existed. We had a home because my mother was at the center of it. When my mother died everything went wrong and the household fell apart. It’s because of women that thousands of years of history are connected. It’s also why people believe that they can achieve things — because of mothers, girls, women. Women are the center of the home. It may seem as if the father is the center, but that’s just for show. It’s really the mother. The real reason the war was so bad was because it wasted women’s lives and caused families to fall apart.
NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA — You wanted to do a film and call it Hiroshima. The script for it is basically laid out in the book Genbaku wo Kataru, which means “Talking about the atomic bomb.”
Why did you want to make this film?
KANETO SHINDO — Because an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, but no one has looked into who did it or why it was done. A plane comes along and drops an atomic bomb. No warning is given. There would have been no point in dropping it if they had issued a warning. But they didn’t issue a warning. They did it as an experiment to see how many people they could kill in one go. It’s very clear what happened. A lot of so-called experts have weighed in, but none of them have said that they dropped the bomb without any warning. They have said that Japan was in the wrong, and that it was because Japan was the enemy. I think it’s important to get the truth out — about what atomic bombs are, about who dropped them, about the effect they had.
NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA — You’re 99 years old now. Is there anything you feel you haven’t been able to achieve?
KANETO SHINDO — I want to do something about the greatness of mothers — about just how great a presence they are in our lives, how important they are. Do you think they just get married, have children, and die? No, of course not. If you go back through history you’ll see clearly the role mothers have played, how good they are. For most people it’s a given that your mother took care of you: mothers take care of their children. I say, “take care of,” but what mothers do goes beyond how even Buddha or the gods take care of children. Only a mother can do that. So in the remaining part of my life I’d like to make something about mothers. But look at me. I’m in a wheelchair. My legs don’t work properly. I’ve lost my strength. I can’t direct.
NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA — But surely as long as a director’s mind is working he can keep on making films.
KANETO SHINDO — It is not like that. You can’t make a film just with your head. But there’s one thing about Postcard I haven’t told you about — haven’t told anyone about. During the Second World War 100 people were selected by lottery to be sent to join a certain military unit. Ninety-four of them ended up dying. I’m one of the six who lived. It wasn’t as though I requested to not be one of those 94. It was fate that kept me from being one of those 94. So, what is my existence, to be alive and living in this world? I live presumptuously. I’m still here because those 94 people died.
NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA — You’ll be 100 years old next year. Do you have any work planned?
KANETO SHINDO — No, I’m lazing around doing nothing. But I’m glad I’ve lived such a long life. And it’s good that Americans have seen Children of Hiroshima. It was pure self-satisfaction when I saw that happen. I really wanted Americans to see it.
NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA — You waited 59 years for it.
KANETO SHINDO — And now people in New York have seen The Naked Island. It’s not as if I made these films with the idea that they’d be shown in New York. I just wanted to express the anger in my heart — as a director, through film. That’s why I made them.
NORITOSHI HIRAKAWA — The Naked Island is touring America right now. And next year a DVD of it will go on sale, so your work will be seen by a lot of people.
KANETO SHINDO — And I still have so much left to say…
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