The Ballad of Narayama
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This haunting, kabuki-inflected version of a Japanese folk legend is set in a remote mountain village, where food is scarce and tradition dictates that citizens who have reached their seventieth year must be carried to the summit of Mount Narayama and left there to die. The sacrificial elder at the center of the tale is Orin (Ugetsu’s Kinuyo Tanaka), a dignified and dutiful woman who spends her dwindling days securing the happiness of her loyal widowed son with a respectable new wife. Filmed almost entirely on cunningly designed studio sets, in brilliant color and widescreen, The Ballad of Narayama is a stylish and vividly formal work from Japan’s cinematic golden age, directed by the dynamic Keisuke Kinoshita (Twenty-four Eyes).
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Although I am, at best, a casual fan of Japanese cinema, I do also have a passing familiarity with Kabuki theater and bunraku. (My undergraduate degree is in theatre.) NARAYAMA tells a folk tale about a humble village in the Japanese mountains, and the story itself is only moderately interesting. But the style of the telling elevates the story in some almost magical way...the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts.
The story: in the village we come to know, there are really only two things on everyone's mind, food and death. Food is always scarce and hunger is a constant companion, and starvation is a frequent visitor too. Thus, any elderly person who reaches the age of 70 is expected to be taken into the mountains and abandoned there to the god Narayama. (In reality, these elderly are left to freeze to death.) We meet Orin, a 69 year old woman who knows her fate is coming, and is ready to accept it. However, she needs to put a few things in her household in order, mostly marrying off her recently widowed son.
The style: the movie revels in nature and the colors and offerings of the outdoors. Rice fields. Trees turning in autumn. Streams and brooks. Paths through fields. Yet ALL of the film is set on elaborate stages, with painted backdrops. The whole film feels more like a really, really elaborate stage play than a film. In Kabuki tradition, we have a narrator who sings commentary from offstage. The lighting is all theatrical and sets literally move in front of us to reveal new scenes. It's startling and beautiful. The sets are fully realized, but we're never to be tricked into thinking we're anywhere but in a theatrical setting. This has the effect of creating the intimacy and immediacy of theater (if you've never been to a GOOD live performance, you're missing out on the difference between how we connect to characters on screen and with real, live folks just steps away from us actually living the experience as we watch it), yet it has enough expansiveness that we don't feel trapped by the confines of a normal sized auditorium. The production design is almost miraculous.
Coupled with the singing and the truly amazing music (a shamisen...kind of a 3 string guitar/banjo), the production takes this humble tale and elevates it. We see that love exists in this society (the middle-aged son clearly loves and reveres his mother), but is always secondary to the daily need to simply have enough to eat. Orin accepts her fate, and in fact, is very embarrassed by the fact that at her age she still has all her teeth (this is taken to mean she eats more than she should to still be this healthy) and the entire village taunts her. Her oldest grandson's wife has a baby on the way, and he actually boldly tells his grandmother that it's time for her to go to Narayama. It's a bit shocking, but even more shocking is the treatment the town bestows on one of its citizens when he's discovered to have stolen some food from a neighbor. His entire family is stripped of all they have...and that's only the start. The lovely sets and constant scenes of nature stand in sharp contrast to the brutal lives these people live. But they are not bad people...just imagine if every day you had to worry if you'd have enough food to feed your family. Things would boil down to the basics pretty quick.
Orin's humble acceptance (even eagerness) of her role...to sacrifice herself to Narayama for the benefit of her village and family, seems almost like lunacy at times. But in the context of the lives in this village, her willingness is really just her chance to give her family one final, meaningful act of love. It's all remarkably powerful.
So why not 5 stars? Well, for all its stark beauty and great music and meaningful themes, this 98 minute movie feels too long. There are a couple of scenes wherein we see ritual enacted that go on for quite some time. I know it's more my fault than the movie's, but I struggled to find the patience for them. And there are moments of violence that are handled clumsily, including one scene at the very end that could have been quite stunning, but instead feels like high school drama class. And while the film has very few closeups (adding to the theatrical feeling...we don't get closeups in live theater), many of the ones we do get show too clearly things like wig lines. I can overlook them, but I can't help noticing them and being momentarily jarred. But I still heartily recommend this film to anyone looking to broaden their perspective on just what film can do, and frankly, to be amazed at the technical achievement of the sets.
Sadly, Criterion has not come up with worthwhile bonus material here (hence the lower price). Only a trailer and the usual essay in the booklet (although it is very good). I can't help but feel with a little effort they could have come up with something, either about the director (who was quite prolific) or the making of the film. Surely there is a scholar out there willing to pontificate!
The plot involves three generations of a household: the aged Orin who is the matriarch of the household, her son Tatsuhei, and his son--a completely self-absorbed teenager--Kesakichi. The village tradition dictates that elderly parents are carried into the mountains and left there to die, so that the younger generations have a better chance to survive.
However this family problematizes tradition because Orin is in great health, as evidenced by her full set of teeth. Orin is eager to carry out the tradition, counting down the days until her trip to Narayama. But her son, Tatsuhei, is deeply attached to his mother and does not want her to die. Her Grandson, Kesakichi, is wretched and taunts Orin, regularly demanding that she make the trip to her grave. Kesakichi's comically bovine wife, Matsu, is excited for Orin's death because there will be more food for them once Granny's out of the way.
The story and color is beautiful and tragic. The highly stylized sets contribute to the sense of watching a stage production. Even with these layers to remove the viewer from the tragic events unfolding, this viewer was completely caught in the story.
As usual, the Criterion Collection edition comes with nice extras:
---New 4K digital master from the 2011 restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
---Trailer and teaser
---New English subtitle translation
---PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Philip Kemp
I bought this as a blind buy during a sale and couldn't be happier.
BluRay PQ is great, there are some scenes that are really soft but that is the exception. I watched this on my 60" HDTV and there was phenomenal detail throughout the film.
Audio track isn't anything too ambitious, but sounded okay on my system. No pops, hisses, etc., as with basically all Criterion releases.
For people who are put off by the sad nature of the story, it is important to remember that because it is shown in a kabuki-like format, it is presented more as a complex myth than as an accurate rendition of historical events.