The Ballad of Narayama (Narayama bushiko)

The Ballad of Narayama
(Narayama bushiko)
Director: Keisuke Kinoshita
Screenplay: Keisuke Kinoshita (based on the story by Shichirô Fukazawa)
Stars: Kinuyo Tanaka (Orin), Teiji Takahashi (Tatsuhei), Yûko Mochizuki (Tamayan), Danko Ichikawa (Kesakichi), Keiko Ogasawara (Matsu-yan), Seiji Miyaguchi (Matayan), Yûnosuke Itô (Matayan’s son), Ken Mitsuda (Teruyan)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1958
Country: Japan
The Ballad of Narayama
The Ballad of NarayamaKeisuke Kinoshita’s The Ballad of Narayama (Narayama bushiko) is a striking experimental mixture of Japanese folklore, theatrical traditions, and stunning cinematic camerawork. The story, which is derived from a novel by Shichirô Fukazawa, is based on “the legend of obasute,” the Japanese version of senicide in which the elderly are left to die on the top of a mountain in order to spare the younger members of their village the burden of caring for them. Given that obasute is folklore rather than historical practice, The Ballad of Narayama immediately takes on the hue of allegory, which is enhanced by Kinoshita’s decision to heavily stylize the film with theatrical conceits such as unnatural lighting, on-camera set changes, and the use of a masked narrator who literally sets the stage as a curtain parts for the opening credits.

The story takes place in an unnamed village deep in the Japanese Alps some time in the mid-19th century. The central character is Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka), a solemn and determined elder who is resolute in the face of her impending 70th birthday, when ancient custom dictates that she be carried to the top of nearby Mount Narayama and left there to die of exposure and starvation. While the practice seems cruel to the point of sadistic, it is rooted in the exigencies of a remote village dealing with extreme levels of poverty and lack of sustenance, although there is also the suggestion that the practice of obasute, like many traditions, is carried on simply because it’s the way things have always been. Unlike her neighbor Matayan (Seiji Miyaguchi), who steadfastly rejects this tradition and resists the attempts by his increasingly angry son (Yûnosuke Itô) to take him away, Orin accepts her fate and spend the year leading up to her 70th birthday ensuring that her family affairs are in order. This primarily means ensuring that her widower son Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi) finds another wife, which he does in Tamayan (Yûko Mochizuki), a widow from a neighboring village. Orin must also contend with Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa), Tatsuhei’s impertinent and bitter son, who disapproves of his father’s remarriage and openly ridicules his grandmother.

The family tensions in The Ballad of Narayama carry a deep emotional charge that integrates quite seamlessly into the more mythical elements of the narrative, which Kinoshita and cinematographer Hiroyuki Kusuda (who also happened to be his brother-in-law) emphasize via the extraordinarily detailed and beautiful artifice of the settings. Shot entire on studio sets, the film’s atmosphere is resolutely theatrical, although the style is sustained to a point where it begins to feel almost natural, as if the story could only unfold on a stage. Yet, at the same time, the film is resolutely cinematic, its ’Scope framing and elegant camera movements drawing us into the setting, rather than pulling us outside of it.

The lighting is particularly impressive, with primary hues and spotlights lending the proceedings an additional layer of surreal intensity. The artificiality of the staging never detracts from the emotional core of the film, especially the heartrending moments when Tatsuhei must carry Orin up the mountain, a physically and emotionally arduous journey made all the more unbearable by Orin’s resolute silence. Yet, at the same time, it intensifies the film’s allegorical intentions, opening up the narrative beyond the immediate action to larger questions of the role of duty, sacrifice, and tradition in any culture. The extreme treatment of the elderly in the film’s worldview is unfathomable in many respects, yet still corresponds uncomfortably with the way the aged are treated in many cultures once they are no longer deemed “useful.” Kinoshita, an immensely popular and prolific filmmaker in Japan, certainly has a sentimental streak, yet The Ballad of Narayama retains a hard edge, especially in its closing moments when the film shockingly switches to a realist black-and-white style to suggest that, no matter how much we advance and develop and modernize, some things never change.

The Ballad of Narayama Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Ballad of Narayama is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio2.35:1
AudioJapanese Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Teaser trailer
  • Trailer
  • Essay by critic Philp Kemp
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 5, 2013

    The Ballad of Narayama was restored in 2011 by Shochiku Studios and Imagica, and Criterion’s new digital transfer was made from the restored 35mm interpositive, which was wetgate printed from the original camera negative (apparently the negative itself was too fragile at this point to endure the scanning process) and scanned in 4K (although the restoration work was done in 2K). The image is superb, rendering the highly stylized mis-en-scene with incredible detail and intense color saturation that enhances the film’s unique vibe. The restoration work has left the image looking extremely clean, with virtually no signs of dirt, age, or wear and without compromising the grain structure. The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a sound positive and digitally restored to eliminate ambient hiss and any other aural artifacts. The soundtrack, which is presented as a Linear PCM track, is understandably limited in terms of sonic scope, but that limitation actually works well in conjunction with the artificial nature of the film’s imagery.
    The only supplements on the disc are a teaser and trailer, while the insert booklet contains an essay by film critic Philip Kemp.

    Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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