Kaneto Shindo: Director who made and wrote films for seven decades


An eminent figure in Japanese cinema for seven decades, both as an independent film-maker and as a prolific screenwriter, Kaneto Shindo enjoyed his greatest international profile during the 1960s, particularly for his ghoulish horror classic Onibaba (1964). Apart from creating a sensation abroad, it was a seminal forerunner of the modern Japanese horror film.

Born in Hiroshima at the end of the Meiji era, the son of a farmer, Kaneto Shindo entered films in 1934 as an assistant art director at Shinko-Kinema Tokyo Studio (which was absorbed by Shochiku-Ofuna in 1942), and for more than 10 years served as assistant director to the great Kenji Mizoguchi (about whom he made a documentary in 1975). He also turned to scriptwriting, receiving his first screen credit on Yoshihito Ochiai's Women Advance South in 1940; he eventually wrote more than 200 scripts for other directors.

His script for The Ball at the Anjo House (1947), which won top prize in the critics' poll for the film magazine Kinema Junpo, marked the beginning of a long professional association with its director, Kozaburo Yoshimura, with whom he left Shochiku in 1950 to establish an independent production company, Kindai Eiga Kyokai.

It was for them that he directed his first film, a semi-autobiographical tribute to his first wife, who had died in 1940, Story of a Beloved Wife (1951), starring Nobuko Otowa, who was to become his third wife and regular leading actress. According to the writer Donald Richie, an authority on Japanese cinema, it was "praised for its social criticism and damned for its sentimentality in almost equal measure, a pattern of reaction which has been maintained through most of the director's career."

Shindo achieved early renown as a director with Children of Hiroshima (1952), a melancholy adaptation of Arata Osada's best-selling novel about the repercussions of the atomic-bomb blast on the city of his birth. The American occupation having only just ended, it was the first Japanese film permitted to deal directly with that national trauma, to which he would return several times: Lucky Dragon No 5 (1959) is the true story of a crew of tuna fishermen who in 1954 strayed into the fall-out from the US nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll; Mother (1963) depicted the determination of an A-bomb survivor, played by Otowa, to become a mother; in Lost Sex (1966) a man becomes impotent through radiation sickness after surviving the Hiroshima bombing; and Sakuratai 8.6 (1988) is a semi-documentary about a left-wing theatre group who perished there.

Having concentrated on relatively unadorned left-wing social realism, Shindo made a striking departure with The Naked Island (1960). Made with a tiny crew at a tenth of the cost of an average Japanese feature, it took the Grand Prix at the 1961 Moscow Film Festival and saved Shindo's company from bankruptcy. Depicting a husband, his wife (Otowa) and their two sons eking out a primitive existence on the eponymous island, carrying heavy pails of water up a steep hill, it resembled a work of neo-realism, but the absence of dialogue created an aura of artiness that suggested an allegory on the human condition.

Shindo, however, said that its unorthodox approach drew upon childhood memories. "I saw with my own eyes my parents' hard work, the rice planting in early summer under the harsh sun and the laborious harvesting in autumn," he recalled. "I have an unforgettable memory of my mother carrying two heavy jugs of water on her shoulders. Until the day she died, my mother said nothing of her terrible work, her silent battle with nature. This silence was very disturbing and is why I conceived a drama without dialogue." Visually, it anticipated the visceral style of Onibaba, the film that would become Shindo's greatest international success.

Human Being (1962) gave something of a foretaste, depicting the effects of hunger and thirst on a group of four people shipwrecked by a storm who gradually turn on each other; two of them contemplate cannibalism. Onibaba was located in an equally remote and inhospitable environment, with the addition of lashings of sex and violence, embellished with stunning widescreen black and white photography. It told the nihilistic tale of a mother (Otowa again) and daughter preying on passing samurai, who they murder and then strip of their possessions. Kuroneko (1968), a supernatural revenge thriller set in the 12th century, also drew international attention; but none of Shindo's subsequent work would be seen as widely abroad again.

The Life of Chikuzan (1977), which dramatised the childhood and youth of an acclaimed shamisen player, inspired Variety's reviewer to observe that "it balances grinding poverty and misery against joy in music, physical freedom and movement." Edo Porn (1981) painted a ribald portrait of the celebrated 19th-century woodblock artist Hokusai; and The Strange Story of Oyuki (1992), dramatised the writings of the chronicler of Tokyo lowlife, Nagai Kafu.

Tree Without Leaves (1986) was a melancholy family drama and A Last Note (1995), made when Shindo was 82 and which won the critics' award at the Moscow Film Festival, demonstrates his increasing preoccupation with memory and the tribulations of the old. It marked the final appearance of his wife, who died of cancer days after shooting was completed in 1994; interview footage of her was included in By-Player (2000), written and directed by Shindo from his own novel recalling events in the life of the actor Taiji.

Will to Live (1999) was a modern take on the fable of the Ballad of Narayama – in which the elderly were simply abandoned on a hillside to die - starring the veteran actor Rentaro Mikuni; The Owl (2003) was a black comedy that did something similar with relatively recent true events similar to those recounted in Onibaba.

By now in his nineties, Shindo returned to the director's chair twice more to make Teacher and Three Children (2008), a sentimental drama about a beloved schoolmaster, and his swansong, Post Card (2010), a Second World War melodrama which received a jury award at the Tokyo Film Festival. He died within six weeks of achieving his century, days before a two-month retrospective devoted to himself and Yoshimura opens in London at the British Film Institute. Most of his later films were produced by his son Jiro; his granddaughter, Kaze Shindo made her directing debut in 2000 with Love/Juice.

Richard Chatten

Kaneto Shindo, film director and screenwriter: born Hiroshima 22 April 1912; married three times (one son); died 29 May 2012.