By John A. Riley.
Keisuke Kinoshita’s colorful elegy The Ballad of Narayama deals with ubasute, the apparently apocryphal Japanese practice of abandoning elderly relatives to the elements, and about which many legends exist. In a village in the Shinano mountains, where food is scarce, we are introduced to Orin, an old woman due to be abandoned by her family. She accepts her grim fate selflessly, in deference to tradition. Her son Tatsuhei is reluctant to follow this tradition, but Kesakichi, Orin’s grandson, makes no secret of the fact that he can’t wait to be rid of her, constantly mocking the old woman and characterizing her as a greedy burden. As Tatsuhei remarries and Kesakichi grows increasingly resentful, Orin’s abandonment becomes inevitable.
This film tells a harsh story of people set against each other by poverty, subsisting in a manner reminiscent of Bela Tarr’s reverse creation myth The Turin Horse (2011). But unlike Tarr’s stark, austere work, here the stylized sets (almost all of the film was shot on sound stages) and sumptuous colors recall Hollywood fantasy films of the same era, although their artifice far surpasses Hollywood. There’s a palpable tension between this aesthetic feast for the eyes and the poverty of the villagers, who scrounge and fight each other for enough food to survive. It is as if we are watching a story of desperate poverty play out on the set of a technicolor musical.
Other elements of the film, such as the insistent shamisen soundtrack, and the sung narration that often simply mirrors what we can see on screen, may be jarring to some viewers. But Kinoshita’s audacious stylistic experiments were always indebted to tradition, and here he creates a kabuki play for the screen. This is made clear at the very beginning of the film, when the narrator appears on-screen and announces the subject of what will follow, and, after the opening credits, a curtain is drawn back to reveal the set behind it. Kinoshita’s career continued with tradition-inspired experiments, coming to a head with his next film The River Fuefuki (1960), which adds colored tints to different parts of each shot to achieve an effect reminiscent of watercolor paintings.
In addition to the stunning cinematography and production design, the film also boasts elegantly designed camera movements, from graceful pans to lateral tracking shots that make full use of the intricate sets. And just as well as technical expertise, the film delivers moments of cinephilic detail and atmosphere that rival those found in films by Kinoshita’s better-known contemporaries.
One memorable sequence depicts the villagers as a violent mob enacting vigilante justice on a man who has stolen some food. Selfish, hot-headed Kesakichi is keen to divide up the spoils, and the man and his family are killed. Taking place at night, the whole sequence bathes the villagers in a dark green light, while the sky above holds a violet hue.
In another scene that will linger in the memory, the essentially good-hearted Orin takes her new daughter-in-law to see her secret trout fishing spot. Orin knows that soon she won’t be around to provide for her family, so she wants to pass on this information, and as this location is a closely-guarded secret, they must go at night. Soundtracked by the evocative shamisen, in a wash of greens and blues, the two women must hide from the villagers as they troop past. This time the sky is dark red, as if stained by the blood of the slain family. Keisuke conjures these scenes of night-time barbarism and beauty and sets them almost side-by-side, contrasting Kesakichi’s thuggery with Orin’s gentility.
Ultimately, The Ballad of Narayama is a haunting film for the simple reason that one day we too will be old, and there won’t be any sumptuous colors or kabuki stylization for us when we die. But at the end of the film the artifice of the sound stage is suddenly abandoned in favor of location filming, and we are simultaneously brought from Japan’s feudal past to the contemporaneous moment, to a train station high in the mountains. As a train pulls into the station, there is the nagging sensation that this final moment is a meta-cinematic postscript whose meaning remains just out of reach, like a half-remembered dream. The luminous artifice of the film’s main body is put into question; perhaps Kinoshita wants us to reflect upon the relationship of social progress to technology; perhaps, like an illusionist, he merely wanted to create a beautiful artifact and then dismantle it. With its roots in a long-standing Japanese art form, Narayama remains a relevant and compelling film, and resolutely cinematic despite its theatrical origins.
John A. Riley holds a PhD from the University of London. He writes about film for a wide variety of publications and is on the editorial team of desistfilm.com.
The Ballad of Narayama received its Blu-ray and DVD release from the Criterion Collection on February 5th, 2013.