Narayama bushikô (1983)

BALLAD OF NARAYAMA, THE (Narayama bushiko)

(director/writer: Shoei Imamura; screenwriter: based on two novels by Shichiro Fukazawa; cinematographer: Masao Tochizawa; editor: Hajime Okayasu; music: Shinichiro Ikebe; cast: Ken Ogata (Tatsuhei), Sumiko Sakamoto (Orin, Tatsuhei’s mother), Tonpei Hidari (Risuke, Tatsuhei’s brother), Takejo Aki (Tamayan, Tatsuhei’s wife), Seiji Kurasaki (Kesakichi, older son), Junko Takada (Matsu), Shoichi Ozawa (Katsuzo), Kaoru Shimamori (Tomekichi, younger son), Ryutaro Tatsumi (Matayan, the old neighbor), Norihei Miki (Old salt dealer), Akio Yokoyama (Amaya), Sachie Shimura (Amaya’s wife); Runtime: 130; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Jiro Tomoda/Goro Kusakabe; Animeigo; 1983-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles)

“Grippingly told tale.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The 1983 winner of the prestigious Golden Palm Prize at Cannes. Director Shoei Imamura (“Black Rain”/”Dr. Akagi/”The Eel”), who began as an assistant to Yasujiro Ozu, does a remarkable job capturing the ignorance, brutality and superstitions of a remote mountain peasant community who value survival more than they do humanity. There’s nothing subtle about this glum film, that aims to shock by throwing raw reality in your face. It’s based on the two award-winning stories by Fakazawa.

The story takes place in a famine stricken 19th century Japanese mountain village in the north that lies near Mount Narayama. The villagers have their own rules which defy basic humanity, but are accepted because “that’s the way it goes.” They ration food, leave their young boys to die in the rice paddies when they have too many children to feed, theft is punished by premature burial and anyone who reaches the age of seventy must retreat to the summit of Mount Narayama to die a ritualized death that the elders claim is what the God of the mountain desires and that he bestows honor on those who follow the traditional ritual. Nobody questions such logic.

Orin (Sakamoto) is a 69-year-old hard-working woman, the best fisherman in the village, in excellent health who before the winter comes will be 70 and is serene about following the old custom of going to the mountain to die even though her 45-year-old oldest son, a widower named Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata), doesn’t want mom to leave just yet. Neither does she until she does a few things to gain her personal fulfilment, such as find a woman to screw her simple-minded 35-year-old virgin son Risuke (Tonpei Hidari), who turns off all the ladies because he has a bad body odor and must sleep at home in the shed; find a wife for Tatsuhei, which she does as the salt dealer arranges for the marriage to a big strapping woman from the next village, Tamayan (Takejo Aki), who will make a good wife; and lastly to bring down a few notches her wise guy grandson Kesakichi (Seiji Kurasaki), who is insolent and promiscuous and made up a ballad everyone sings in the village to mock her about being a demon with 33 teeth. When Orin accomplishes all that with the skill of a wise person, she also learns what really happened to her gambling husband who vanished thirty years ago. His sudden departure, without even a goodbye, embarrassed her in front of the other villagers, and the only sign of him is when Tatsuhei takes her near the film’s end to the side of the mountain where there’s a wind spirit in a tree.

Imamura remains neutral in his feelings about this harsh fictionalized tradition of a primitive society, as he instead begs for comparisons with the cruelties of our own time. One only has to look at America and how cold is its treatment of its seniors to see how he is telling the modern world before you moralize against this primitive society you better take a look at your own so-called civilized one. The story unfolds without any overt preaching and Imamura prevents it from becoming dreamy like the original version shot in 1958 and directed by Keisuke Kinoshita. It slowly leads up to the stunning climax, where the obedient oldest son carries his elderly mom on his back up the mountain slopes lined with decaying skeletons and thinks that a first snow that materializes is a sign from the mountain God that his mom will be well-received (there’s a ballad sung throughout that says “if it snows, she’ll be released from pain”). It’s a very moving and tender scene between the great love between a mother and son, one of cinema’s most intense moments, when the son has to leave mom, gently waving him away, without any food to soon die in the cold and the hungry black crows are already beginning to get excited about their next meal.

It’s a well-crafted (shot mostly in the studio and with many close-ups), well-acted, and grippingly told tale about such an unpleasant inhumane ritual that nevertheless offers moments of black comedy, much to think and meditate about the meaning of existence, lots of emotional fervor over life and death situations, and fine lyrical sequences.