Writer-director Keisuke Kinoshita’s The Ballad of Narayama is a deeply unsettling, unpleasant, and uncompromising film about how the younger members of families deal with their elders. This Japanese production was released in 1958 and while the practice of ubasute—“abandoning an old woman”—is apparently now regarded as antiquated, the issue of how to handle the burden of the aged remains forever relevant. The Criterion Collection has restored this surreal literary adaptation (the source novel, by Shichiro Fukazawa, is called Men of Tohoku), releasing it on DVD and Blu-ray.
Set during an unspecified time (but obviously prior to the 20th century) in a small village, the plot centers on a woman named Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka). At 69 years of age, she is mentally preparing herself to make the requisite journey to Mount Narayama. Despite the pomp and circumstance surrounding this journey, its true purpose is no secret: this is how the elderly are disposed of in order for families to conserve resources. The inhabitants of the village appear to be living practically on a purely instinctive level. They grow rice and beans, but food is far from plentiful. The villagers appear to be doing nothing more than existing. As such, sympathy for the abandoned seniors is a luxury that these people do not have.
Orin’s son Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi) is absolutely heartbroken over his mother’s impending journey to Narayama. He obsesses over what will essentially be the act of discarding his mother like a piece of trash. But his son, Orin’s grandson, Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa) is almost gleeful over the prospect of being rid of the woman with “33 devil teeth.” He even sings a little ditty, leading the family in sing-along, about Orin’s unusual (for her age) amount of remaining teeth, which allow her to consume a robust amount of food. She claims to have only 28—even less after she knocks some out to appear older and eat less.
If it’s not apparent from the overall plot, The Ballad of Narayama is a highly unusual film—boldly experimental for 1958 but even strange by today’s standards. Tanaka wasn’t quite out of her 40s when she portrayed the 69 year old Orin. Her performance is quite convincing, though she clearly has the body and overall mobility of someone much younger than Orin.
That’s keeping in line with the artifice of Narayama, a film almost entirely staged on a massive indoor set. A rather bluntly obvious commentary is sung throughout the film by an unseen narrator, usually telling us what is happening on screen. This technique gets a little overbearing at times and I feel the film could’ve done without it. However, the instrumental score (credited to Chûji Kinoshita and Matsunosuke Nozawa) is mesmerizing, particularly during the film’s inevitable climax, the arduous journey to frigid Mount Narayama.
Criterion’s DVD edition is accompanied by no extras, save for the theatrical and teaser trailers. From what I gather, the same holds true for the Blu-ray edition. I hope to one day see this vividly colorful film in high definition, but the standard DVD presents a strong image nonetheless. Some have pointed to the almost strobe-like stutter effect at the 36-minute mark as a mastering error. It is a weird visual anomaly, lasting approximately 20 seconds, but it doesn’t have any ill effect on the audio. I’m not sure what’s going on for that brief segment, but since it occurs mostly during a right-to-left pan of a cluster of trees, it doesn’t cause much distraction.
Philip Kemp, of the British Film Institute, contributed an indispensable essay about The Ballad of Narayama for the booklet. A number of haunting sequences and impassioned performances by Kinuyo Tanaka and Teiji Takahashi make this another highly recommended film in The Criterion Collection.