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The Ballad of Narayama

The Ballad of Narayama
1983 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 130 min. / Narayama bushiko / Street Date June 10, 2008 / 24.98
Starring Ken Ogata, Sumiko Sakamoto, Aki Takejo, Tonpei Hidari, Seiji Kurasaki, Kaoru Shimamori, Ryutaro Tatsumi, Junko Takada, Nijiko Kiyokawa, Mitsuko Baisho
Cinematography Masao Tochizawa
Production Design Nobutaka Yoshino
Art Direction Tadataka Yoshino
Film Editor Hajime Okayasu
Original Music Shinichiro Ikebe
Written by Shohei Imamura from stories by Shichiro Fukazawa
Produced by Goro Kusakabe, Jiro Tomoda
Directed by Shohei Imamura

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Films by the Japanese director Shohei Imamura have one thing in common -- they're as provocative as a slap in the face. Imamura's Vengeance is Mine is a cold look at a serial killer, and his Black Rain (1988) studies the cruel social prejudice against innocent Hiroshima bombing victims. One of Imamura's most celebrated films is the Cannes Palm d'Or winner The Ballad of Narayama, a tale of life in a remote mountain hamlet sometime in the 19th century. Living in constant fear of starvation, the farmers abide by a brutal social code. Imamura doesn't flinch at depicting its unpleasant details. Keisuke Kinoshita directed an earlier, more stylized version of the same story in 1958.

Tatsuhei's (Ken Ogata) tiny mountaintop community endures constant hardship. With never enough food to go around, their traditions have adapted in several very uncivilized ways. Unwanted baby boys are often killed at birth, while baby girls are kept because they can be sold, presumably into lives of prostitution. Firstborn sons are the only males with rights. The others are prohibited from marrying, and allowed to stay only if they work. Neighbors accuse one another of thievery, and most keep hidden hoards of foodstuffs, often stolen. Most barbaric of all, when the elders reach the age of 70, they're required to go to the slopes of Narayama Mountain to die. That time has come for Tatsuhei's mother Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto). She is in fine shape and still productive, but believes firmly in the law.

The Ballad of Narayama is a rumination about life and nature that reminds us how close we are to our primitive roots. The frightened mountain farmers might as well be prehistoric cavemen living in an early agrarian tribe. Older Western movies celebrate backwoods living as a pure state in which hardy God-fearing folk forge a livelihood out of the wilderness; even hillbillies have Daniel Boone to look up to. But without a frontier or a hope for a future, social forms tend to break down quickly.

Narayama's farming town is a closed system unable to feed the all of the workers needed to keep it going. Something has to give. The little clans fall back on ritual superstitions and momentary, selfish pleasures. The movie is series of shocking and depressing vignettes. A dead infant found in a rice paddy only starts an argument over "baby dumping rights." Relatives executed for thievery are simply not mentioned any more. Tatshuhei's no-good father simply disappeared years ago; the family thinks he's become a ghost wandering the hills.

Even more appalling is the village's large population of frustrated "second sons", ragged young men forbidden to marry. Tatsuhei's brother is a nearly feral lout known for his foul smell, and for his habit of having sex with the neighbor's dog. Tatshuei beats him but nothing seems to do any good. From the attitudes of the brother's equally dispossessed peers, his degeneracy isn't atypical.

The local customs about sex are baffling. Plenty of forbidden coupling goes on in the woods between lonely young women and men; any offspring are murdered or sold. Imamura stresses the base savagery of it all by inter-cutting this grubby sex with graphic shots of various animals copulating and eating one another.

Even more disturbing is the primitive response to lawbreaking. When one household is discovered to be systematically stealing food, the neighborhood bands together, attacks the house and buries the entire family alive. A daughter of the thieves living with Tatsuhei's family is tricked into going home just before the raid, and perishes with her kin. When it's all over the neighbors split what they can recover from the murdered family's house, and never mention them again.

Imamura's film has some humor -- the farmers are completely comfortable with their ugly rituals -- but the tone becomes more spiritual and poignant in the final act. Over Tatsuhei objections, his mother Orin chooses to accept her fated death on the mountain before the appointed time. She passes on her private knowledge to other family members and then goes through the ceremonial preparations. Tatsuhei obediently carries her up the mountain trails to a forbidden holy site, the place of death.

Along the way Tatsuhei sees another man disposing of his father. The old man is bound in a net because he doesn't want to die, forcing his son to abandon custom for a more direct method of fulfilling the ritual. Tatsuhei's mother simply tells him to put her down and leave, and they share an emotionally shattering embrace as snow begins to fall. The horrible abandonment/suicide of Orin suddenly seems little removed from our own culture's faulty way of dealing with death and dying. The Ballad of Narayama concludes with a universal message and an emotional sting.

The Ballad of Narayama is another statement of Shohei Imamura's disenchantment with humanity, but it also recognizes the positive potential in people. This makes it ultimately more memorable than the pessimistic Vengeance is Mine. Ken Ogata also plays the hateful killer in that film, which makes his caring Tatshuei character here seem all the more human.

Tatsuhei seems a fair man in general but his mother Orin is the film's center. Orin tries to make a new wife welcome in the home, and always acts unselfishly. A widow is known to be bedding various unmarried men, and when the somewhat revolting second son is denied access, the mother humbles herself to find another woman willing to take him to her bed. In one traumatic scene Orin purposely smashes her front teeth. For the rest of the film she grins with a shattered smile. We hope that actress Sumiko Sakamoto faked her appearance by removing a denture; some online sources say that she had her teeth surgically removed for the role. If that's true, it certainly trumps Robert De Niro's "extreme acting" weight gain for Raging Bull.

AnimEigo takes a break from its line of Japanese action and anime to present The Ballad of Narayama, a modern classic. The enhanced transfer has subdued colors and excellent sound. As is the AnimEigo custom, the precise English subtitles are embellished with explanatory notes for unfamiliar terms and phrases. This makes every detail of Imamura's film accessible to non-Japanese speakers.

The extras are a quartet of theatrical trailers and teasers, an image gallery and the expected bundle of informative text notes. A packaging disclaimer warns of the film's violence, nudity and sexual situations.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Ballad of Narayama rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailers, program notes, image gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 30, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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