Kaneto Shindo has spent most of his long career telling other people's stories. As a screenwriter and film director, he showed the hardscrabble lives of the have-nots in Japanese society — prostitutes, farmers, migrant workers and war victims. No subject seemed too grim for him to explore.
But there was one story from his own past that he kept from almost everyone: an episode from when he was in the imperial navy during World War II. It had weighed on his mind for decades.
By the time Shindo decided to tell his story, he was 98 years old. "I felt my own death approaching, but there were things I still had to say," he says.
The film he made, "Ichimai no Hagaki" (Postcard), hit the big screen in Japan last summer. Written and directed by Shindo, it portrays a man who is drafted and assigned to a cleaning crew at a temple. One night, the man's bunkmate pulls out a postcard from his wife and asks for a favor: If I die, tell my wife that I read her note. The man later finds out that all but six from that 100-man unit were killed in the war, and pays his former bunkmate's wife a visit.
The film showed on just 20 screens across Japan but pulled in more than $1.3 million in its first month. In October, "Postcard" won the special jury prize at the Tokyo International Film Festival. It became Japan's entrant for the foreign-language Academy Award this year, and screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. Longtime fan Benicio Del Toro touted screenings of Shindô's film in New York and at Cinefamily in Los Angeles.
Although "Postcard" didn't end up among the five eventual foreign-language Oscar nominees, it will play at the Portland International Film Festival in mid-February and its backers are looking for U.S. distribution.
Now 99, Shindo says "Postcard" was his last film, capping a seven-decade career in which he racked up an impressive catalog of work, writing more than 200 screenplays and directing 49 movies. He made tragedies and horror films, period dramas and documentaries.
Japanese directors Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu won far more attention overseas, and some critics found Shindo's work too sentimental or racy. But Shindo produced a few that are regarded today as classics.
His masterpiece, "The Naked Island" (1960), showed the plight of a poor farming family living on an island with no fresh water. The film, which had no dialogue, won the grand prize at the Moscow Film Festival and its commercial success saved Shindo's production company. "He put all the money that he had left into the movie, and made it with just two actors and a staff of 13," says his son, Jiro Shindo, who is now the company's president.
Other Shindo works well known stateside include 1968's arty yet chilling "Kuroneko" ("Black Cat"), which was re-released in 2010 in the United States, and his 1964 "Onibaba," about two women who kill wandering samurai, put their bodies down a hole and sell their armor.
These days, the nonagenarian rarely drops by Kindai Eiga Kyokai (Modern Film Assn.), the independent production company that he started in 1950 in Tokyo. He makes an exception for interviews. In his wheelchair, he looks frail, his hands clasped in his lap. He speaks slowly and his voice is raspy and weak. When his train of thought veers off or gets stuck in a loop, his granddaughter, Kaze, who is a film director, pokes his arm. "I now read books. I lie around," he says.
"You mostly lie around," Kaze adds.
Shindo was in his early 20s when he joined the film developing lab of a studio in Kyoto. He once told an interviewer at the Directors Guild of Japan that he wanted to become a film director after seeing Sadao Yamanaka's "Life of Bangaku" (1933), about an itinerant do-gooder samurai.
Shindo always thought of himself as a socialist. You could see it in his characters: They always seemed to be barely scraping by and yet were hopeful about their circumstances. Shindô's upbringing might have had something to do with it. "His parents were rich landowners in Hiroshima but they went bankrupt and lost everything when he was young," Jiro Shindo says. "He always saw things from the perspective of people who were at the bottom of society."
Shindo was in his 90s when he made his final three films. He was in a wheelchair for the last two. Investors were constantly asking about his health. "Everyone worried that he might die in the middle of making a movie," Jiro says. "He knew it and wanted to make sure that his projects could be finished without him. So he made detailed storyboards for every scene before getting started."
Jiro says his father would get dropped off at the set each morning and the crew and actors would huddle around him to get specific instructions and hear how he wanted a scene to play out. The main actors, Etsushi Toyokawa and Shinobu Otake, had worked with him previously.
"His staff and actors listened closely to him and knew that he was hard of hearing and that they had to be loud and clear when speaking to him," Jiro recalls. "We had originally planned for 60 days of filming but had to squeeze it into 45 days because of a budget shortfall. For my father, who was 98 at the time, it was physically draining."
"My biggest task was to make sure he didn't wear himself out, and would have enough energy to do his job throughout the filming," he adds. "At one point when he got sick and had to go to the hospital, I suggested that he take the day off and he insisted on going back to the set."
At times, the 99-year-old talks like someone who knows that he has beaten the odds. That goes back to his navy days. He never forgot the way officers decided assignments for the rank and file: by lottery. "The lottery determined your fate," he says. "If I had drawn a different number, I would be dead."
It made him even more determined to honor the men in his unit who died. He also set out to show the contradictions of war. "Everyone says it's an honor to die for your country. But it destroys your family," he says.
Not everything in "Postcard" actually happened. Shindo didn't keep the bunkmate's postcard or contact the man's wife. Still, just making the movie was therapeutic for Shindo. "This burden that I had been carrying around all those years feels a lot lighter," he says.
Shindo turns 100 in April. It makes him chuckle to think that he got to squeeze in one last film. "I feel very satisfied," he says. "I feel at peace."