It’s hard to deny the fact that Keisuke Kinoshita’s The Ballad of Narayama is a film that’s probably best appreciated by those with a deep understanding of Japanese culture, history, and myth. After all, it’s an examination of the legendary ancient practice of ubasute, told in a highly stylized Kabuki manner; and while its broader themes of duty, honor, and sacrifice are accessible, there are certainly nuances that would likely only be rewarding to the informed.
That said, I didn’t find Narayama difficult to fall for whatsoever — Kinoshita’s formal audacity makes for a striking intersection of cinema and theater, and seems to be a perfect fit with the source material. The blatant artificiality of the soundstage environments certainly has a distancing Brechtian effect on one hand; but, on the other, it amplifies the mythical, fantastic elements of the story.
Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) is approaching 70 years old, which means the time is near for her to be taken into the mountains and left to die as a way to preserve scarce resources and prevent her from becoming a burden on her family. Orin isn’t merely resigned to her fate; she perversely looks forward to it as her familial duty. Before her time is up though, she’s determined to set things right around her, and her chief goal is finding a new wife for her widower son, Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi). He’s heartbroken at his mother’s imminent demise, but grandson Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa) can barely contain his delight, and he moves his boorish pregnant girlfriend into the family’s house.
Framed as a series of mostly static medium and wide shots and punctuated with frequently on-the-nose balladeer narration, The Ballad of Narayama is nonetheless a deeply emotional film. Tanaka’s performance is captivating, portraying an unflagging selflessness that sometimes tips over into reckless self-harm, as in an unforgettable scene where she knocks out her front teeth on a stone grinder to create an appearance more fitting of a woman her age. Kinoshita’s mise en scène is breathtaking, employing shifting panels and dramatic lighting in service of a tightly composed image that eventually gives way to an elegiac on-location shot in the film’s final scene.