When Kaneto Shindo died Tuesday at age 100, he was not the world’s oldest active director — that honor belongs to Portugal’s Manoel e Oliveira, at 103 — but he had had an amazingly productive and celebrated career, which started in 1934. Among his best-known films abroad are 1960′s “Hadaka no Shima (The Naked Island),” a stark, dialogue-less drama of survival on a remote island, and “Onibaba” (1964), a chilling combination of eroticism and horror set in the chaotic 14th century.
These and similarly serious films, made outside Japan’s studio system, led me to imagine him as a rather austere, forbidding type. When I finally had a chance to interview him at the Nikkatsu Studio in 2000, though, it was for “Sanmon Yakusha (By Player),” a docu-drama he was then shooting about Taiji Tonoyama, a hard-drinking, free-living character actor who had appeared in many of Shindo’s 45 films. Nothing austere about that subject — or Shindo’s sometimes blackly comic treatment of it.
Shindo, then 88, looked shrunken and frail as he directed a sickbed scene from a chair, with his producer son Jiro hovering nearby and helping to relay his instructions to the crew. Shindo, however, roused himself for a closer examination of the lighting and, despite his uncertain steps, the sharp eyes under those bushy brows missed nothing.
Later over lunch, he talked about the film, Tonoyama and filmmaking in general with the fluency and authority of the born teacher. (No surprise: Shindo, a prolific scripter, ran his own scriptwriting school.)
He told me he regarded his age as a plus. “Everyone suffers setbacks,” he explained. “The more serious you are about what you’re doing, the more setbacks you suffer. You hit a wall. Some people don’t get up after they hit that wall — they sink and disappear. But by the time you’re in your 80s you’ve gotten over several walls; that experience is your treasure.”
Shindo kept putting that treasure on the screen until age 99, when he completed his last film, “Ichimai no Hagaki (Post Card).” This World War II drama, which premiered at the 2010 Tokyo International Film Festival, was based on his own war experience. Of his navy unit of 100 men, he was one of six survivors. After that, walls were his for the taking.