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The Ballad of Narayama

Posted by martinteller on October 11, 2014

Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) has recently turned 70.  According to local tradition, it is time for her to be carried on the back of her son Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi) up to the top of Narayama mountain and left there to die of exposure or starvation.  Orin is ready to go, eager to ease the burden on her family in a village where food is scarce.  Tatsuhei loves his mother dearly, and resists the task.  He’s a widower with a new bride, the recently widowed Tama (Yûko Mochizuki).  Tama has seen the kindness in Orin’s heart and is also reluctant to let go.  Others are not so sentimental about it, like Tatsuhei’s awful son Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa) and his pregnant wife Matsu (Keiko Ogasawara), who can’t wait to get rid of her, and taunt her about her full set of teeth… a shameful feature for an elderly woman, who is not supposed to be able to eat as much.  Meanwhile, Orin’s neighbor Mata (Seiji Miyaguchi) is already a year past his time but the stubborn fool wants to keep on living.

When Shohei Imamura remade this film (adapted from a novel) 25 years later, he employed a brutal, naturalistic style.  Watching the original, it’s clear what he was responding to.  Because the one thing you can’t ignore about Kinoshita’s Narayama is its blatant artificiality.  The first image is of a black-clad narrator (joruri) who makes some introductory remarks and then pulls aside a curtain to open the film.  Throughout, we are made aware of the theatricality of the production.  Everything is clearly shot on sets, with backdrops that raise up to shift time and location.  The joruri chimes in, narrating the action with chant-like songs.  Colors are bold and unreal, lighting changes instantly.  I have watched a lot of Kinoshita lately (this will be the last one for a while) and this is by far the most experimental I’ve seen him.

Which approach is better?  I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that.  Imamura’s take on it is horrifying, pushing the harsh reality of the situation in your face, rubbing your nose in it.  But Kinoshita’s Brechtian (I always feel a bit pretentious throwing around the word “Brechtian”, having never read a word of Brecht, but no matter) distancing techniques are effective as well.  You can’t see such an obvious mask without thinking about what it’s masking.  Kinoshita does not have to say “this is horrible”… it’s clearly horrible, a callous disregard for the individual for the sake of “the greater good” (unsurprisingly, the village is fond of mob rule, as seen when faced with a thief in their midst).  By taking a step back without getting pummeled by realism, you process not only the horror of it, but the sorrow.  The final act of this movie is heartbreaking.  Imamura’s stark final act is powerful, too… different techniques being used to achieve equally resonant results.

The “rules” of the trek to Narayama are gussied up as solemn traditions, but the true impetus for them is clear: to minimize shame.  Don’t talk, don’t let anyone see you leave, and don’t look back after depositing your loved ones to die.  A fourth rule, by tradition told only in secret, serves the same purpose: you can abandon them partway through the journey if you feel like it.

The cinematography of this movie is stunning, especially because of the vibrant color palette and beautiful sets.  The samisen music is highly appropriate to the kabuki-style presentation, and often haunting.  The legendary Kinuyo Tanaka (star of most of Mizoguchi’s best pictures) is terrifically endearing and human, convincingly portraying a woman more than 20 years older than her actual age.  Yesterday I watched Ballad of Orin.  Different ballad, different Orin.  Both exceptional films that are sure to make my year-end list of top discoveries.  Rating: Very Good (87)

IMDb
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