Where to begin with Kaneto Shindo

Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or sub-genre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all… Your next obsession: Kaneto Shindo, the director behind some of Japan’s creepiest ghost stories

18 April 2019

By Jasper Sharp

Onibaba (1964)

Why this might not seem so easy

The impact of Kaneto Shindo (1912-2012) on Japanese cinema should not be underestimated. His name is most associated in the west with his two slightly anomalous forays into supernatural horror, Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968). But we should also remember him for his unremitting attempts to memorialise and exorcise the trauma that hit the city of his birth, Hiroshima, in less familiar (to western eyes) titles including Children of Hiroshima (1952), Mother (1963), Sakura-tai Chiru (1988) and Teacher and Three Children (2008).

After starting out as a set designer, then screenwriter, he began directing his own scripts from his debut, Story of a Beloved Wife (1951), featuring his future wife Nobuko Otowa, who would appear in much of his subsequent work. He remained active for seven decades, right up to his 2010 swansong, Postcard, realised just two years prior to his death at the age of 100, making him the third oldest director of all time.

Yet his influence runs longer and deeper than this. Aside from the 45 or so films he directed (including documentaries such as Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director in 1975, an homage to the director he worked with early in his career), there’s also his considerable contributions as a screenwriter for other filmmakers. More than 150 of his scripts were produced across his lifetime, including for such celebrated directors as Kozaburo Yoshimura, Seijun Suzuki and Kinji Fukasaku.

Also crucial to Shindo’s legacy is his pioneering role in forging a space for independent films in the studio-dominated landscape of the 1950s Japanese film industry. Together with Yoshimura, Shindo established his own company, Kindai Eiga Kyokai, producing films marked by a strong left-leaning political edge.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a director active for so long, a relatively small proportion of Shindo’s filmography has been made available outside Japan, especially from the post-1960s work. Moreover, several of his films distributed internationally around the time of their production, namely Lost Sex (1966, aka Impotence) and Libido (1967), were retitled for release to the overseas adult market and subsequently forgotten.

These factors, combined with an active engagement with a socio-political context that might be lost on non-Japanese viewers, make Shindo a slippery director to get a handle on. But none of this should detract from the aesthetic and emotive power of his best-known works.

The best place to start – Onibaba

The first encounter with the name of Kaneto Shindo most viewers have is through his ghostly diptych of Onibaba and Kuroneko. The former conjures up a uniquely unsettling atmosphere in its period tale, set during the 14th century, of a scheming woman and her daughter-in-law, whose husband who has disappeared into the fog of the ongoing civil war.

Onibaba (1964)

The pair periodically emerge from their dark hut, deep among the reeds of an expansive marshland landscape (and notably soundscape), to seduce and slaughter passing warriors and sell off their weapons, until their murderous dynamic is thrown off-balance by the discovery of a cursed demon mask on one of their victims. Political subtext is there for those who care to look, but even without considering Japan’s Cold War relationship with America, Onibaba remains a chillingly beautiful piece of cinema.

Its companion piece, Kuroneko, tells a not dissimilar tale of two women drawn from the grave in the form of spectral man-eating cats to avenge themselves against the band of renegade samurai responsible for their rape and murder. Kiyomi Kuroda’s striking scope cinematography this time transforms the towering bamboo groves beyond the Rashomon gate of medieval Kyoto into an otherworldly domain of light pouring through the gaps in the shadow.

What to watch next

Shindo’s first indie feature as a director, Children of Hiroshima, was among the first fictional films to deal directly with the horrors of the atomic bomb, following a blanket ban on the subject imposed by the Allied Occupation censors. Adopting a semi-documentary approach, it features Nobuko Otowa as the kindergarten teacher returning to her home city to lay flowers on the family grave and visit her former students.

Children of Hiroshima (1952)

The reconstruction of the blast, relayed in individual, personal detail by budgetary necessity, rather than portraying the instantaneous widespread devastation in the round, is truly harrowing, as bodies blacken and burn, children are blown from their mothers’ arms, and a man’s shadow is burnt into the steps where he sits.

The film, which competed at Cannes in 1953, was criticised by some voices of the day in Japan as overly sentimental – and indeed it is – but its backdrops of blasted shantytown landscapes then in the process of reconstruction and its use of still visibly scarred real-life natives of the city as extras make it an affecting and vital time capsule of the era.

Another powerful anti-nuclear tract is Lucky Dragon No. 5 (1959), based on the same 1954 incident that inspired Godzilla, in which a Japanese fishing boat was exposed to radioactive fallout following US nuclear testing in the Pacific.

On a completely different tack is Live Today, Die Tomorrow! (1970), a dramatic reconstruction of the infamous real-life case of 19-year-old Norio Nagayama and his nationwide killing spree. The film charts his movements from an upbringing of poverty, social marginalisation and domestic abuse in Hokkaido, through his theft of a pistol from a US military base, to his arrival in Tokyo’s swinging Shinjuku district, a hotbed of political activism and hedonistic counterculture in the throes of a violent comedown at the tail end of the 1960s.

Where not to start

If we really had to choose an individual title from the director’s more readily available work, it might be The Naked Island (1960). Pointing to the other end of the vast stylistic and thematic range of the director’s output, the film depicts a farming family comprised of Shindo regulars Taiji Tonoyama and Otowa, and their two young sons, as they eke out a spartan existence battling the elements across the four seasons on the arid isle of the title.

The Naked Island (1960)

The ethnographical documentary-style minimalism is reminiscent of Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1934), and while it was awarded the Grand Prix at the 1961 Moscow Film Festival, its relatively slow pacing and lack of dialogue might prove a challenge for some.

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