Ballad of Narayama (1958) Movie Review

Here comes a classic: “a beautiful and meditative tale of love and humanity that explores traditional Japanese cultural values,” as the DVD cover informs us. Sadly, it’s one of those ‘classics’ that are more digestible to film students and film historians than to the regular public. And here’s why.

The plot is heavily shaded by the local (Japanese) colors, and we’re not even talking about modern Japan here. No, this is an ancient Japan of an isolated mountain community in which tribal laws make for some very cruel and non-modern rules. The village seems to be very poor, although the visuals seem to contradict that, since the poor shacks are surrounded by the lush growths of trees, flowers and various greenery. This land looks more than fertile to me: how come it cannot produce enough crops for these dumb hicks is beyond me. Anyway, since there’s not enough food, here’s a great way of dealing with it: when people reach the noble age of 70, they’re taken by their sons to the Narayama mountain. Allegedly, to meet the Gods who dwell on the mountain top and to be taken to heaven. Which, of course, is just a sugar-coated little way of getting rid of extra mouths to feed by leaving them to die in the snow far away from anyone’s eyes.

The main character is gramma Orin, who approaches 70. Narayama is calling, oh yeah. She can see it coming. Sadly, this never develops into a LOGAN’S RUN for the elderly (remember, in that one people were ‘taken to the gods’ when they reach 30!). Instead, what we get is a prolonged drama of this old lady and her family which can no longer economically justify her presence at their dinner table. It also makes for some unwittingly funny moments during supper, like the timeless comment: “What! Beans again?!” What will happen? Will she be taken to the mountaintop by her loving son? Or will the filial love break the bonds of cruel tradition? Will gramma Orin live to be 80? Oh, the suspense! It never ends for the entire 94 minutes of this classic!

Orin’s destiny is portrayed through two parallels. On one hand, she has a good, loving son and… a good-for-nothing grandson who’d gladly get rid of the old hag and have more of that delicious rice for himself and his unpleasant, incompetent wife. So, they stand for the two opposing forces: love, devotion, respect and the like, versus the cruel, heartless, inhuman and unnatural tradition. The tension between these two options adds to the never-ending suspense. Also, Orin’s predicament is reflected in that of another old geezer. Unlike her, he won’t have any of that Narayama bull. At 70, he feels that his prime time is yet to come, and is fighting tooth and claw against his family who want him feasting with the gods, not with themselves! His undignified state (he’s begging for food in the village since his family refuse to feed him any more) is a fine contrast against which gramma Orin shines as an even greater paragon of humble acception.

A great deal is made of the fact that, at 70, she still has all of her teeth in her head. They are the obvious symbol of her still-existent hunger, her ability to chew and eat the oh-so-spare food that should be chomped by the younger. So, the whole village is singing about her “33 devil’s teeth”. “How will I face the gods of Narayama like this, with all the teeth still in my gums?” wonders Orin. “It ain’t right. I’m supposed to be a toothless hag. Gotta do something about it.” So she purposefully breaks her teeth on a vessel and goes through the village with a bloodied mouth while everyone else is screaming in terror. Made in 1958, this must be one of the pioneers of the teeth-violence that will be more prevalent in the later Japanese films. Here it happens offscreen. In 1958 Takashi Miike was not even born yet!

After numerous highly exciting adventures (NOT involving the samurai, aliens, mutants or mad slashers!), granny is taken to the Broketooth Mountain. Her loving son takes her there on his back. That’s the key image of this film. It’s on the DVD cover. Some reviews claim that it’s a heartbreaking scene. Well, maybe, but I’m a heartless bastard. I could not breach the gap in time and place that distances me from a son who ‘has to’ take his old mom to the mountains and leave her there. Shoot me, but I couldn’t. So, I watched it like a distant observer, enjoying the eye candy of the surroundings.

Talking about the visuals, it must be said that the whole film is made in the studio, with intentionally formalized sets of the village and obviously painted backgrounds. The use of color is stylized, too, and it provides for some striking shots all bathed in red, or violet, or blue. Kabuki theater meets modern cinema. Tradition meets progress. You know the drill. That’s why this is a classic film. It does not necessarily make it all that compelling or exciting or intriguing for the majority of viewers, but it certainly is important — for the film students and film historians. So, you know who you are.

If you want a highly stylized Japanese classic, with colors even more vibrant, with sets even crazier, with plots even more exciting and thrilling, with images that will burn into your brain — take KWAIDAN (GHOST STORY) instead. It has not dated at all, and — unlike BALLAD OF NARAYAMA — it does not require identification with nitwit hillbillies killing their grammas. It uses the kabuki tradition to tell a very universal and entertaining tale of terror that we can all relate to. Unlike BALLAD OF NARAYAMA.
The film was remade in 1983 by Shohei Imamura, but after the ordeal of these 94 minutes, I’m not so sure I’ll be rushing to check out the same story in the 130 minutes version!

This timeless (?) classic is unleashed upon the masses by Tartan Video in glorious Anamorphic 2.35:1. The image is grainy, the colors a bit washed out, the blacks look more like grey to me, while the sound is only in Dolby Stereo 2.0 (no need for anything fancier anyway). No extras on my preview copy, but there should be liner notes on the regular release.

Keisuke Kinoshita (director) / Shichiro Fukazawa (stories), Keisuke Kinoshita (screenplay)
CAST: Kinuyo Tanaka … Orin
Teiji Takahashi … Tatsuhei
Yûko Mochizuki … Tamayan
Danko Ichikawa … Kesakichi
Keiko Ogasawara … Matsu-yan
Seiji Miyaguchi … Matayan

Buy This Movie from Tartan Video

Ballad of Narayama (1983) Movie Review