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Survivor Ballads: Three Films by Shohei Imamura (3-Disc Special Edition)

Arrow Video // Unrated // December 8, 2020
List Price: $99.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Ian Jane | posted January 27, 2021 | E-mail the Author

The Movies:


Shohei Imamura played a huge role in the international recognition of the Japanese New Wave movement of the sixties with films like The Pornographers, and he continued to make interesting and challenging films until his death in 2006 (his final film being released in 2002). Arrow Academy gathers together three of the films that he made in the 1980s and bundles them together in a very nice boxed set edition entitled Survivor Ballads: Three Films by Shohei Imamura.


The Ballad Of Narayama:


Based on a book by Shichiro Fukuzawa and released in 1983, The Ballad Of Narayama is set in 19th century Japan in a small country village at the base of Mount Narayama. This town, far removed from more densely populated areas of the country, has its own unique rules and customs, though none of them seem to have made anyone in the village particularly happy with their lot in life. Everyone works hard, there is very little time for leisure, and food is frequently scarce. The inhabitants just trudge along, accepting the fact that this is the fate that their gods have in store for them. Unhappiness is accepted as the status quo. To deal with the constant lack of food, the village has instituted a strange custom: anytime someone reaches their seventieth birthday, they must climb Mount Narayama and make peace with the gods believed to reside there, leaving the village with one less mouth to feed. When an elder does this, their families are rewarded.


A woman named Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto) is fast approaching her seventieth birthday. She has no health issues and is quite spy for her age, but customs are customs and traditions are traditions and she knows that soon she'll be expected to make the climb up the mountain. Before she makes the journey, she decides to try and play matchmaker, setting up her middle-aged son, Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata),, with a woman named Tamayan (Takejo Aki) who lives nearby. She also tries to get her other son, Risuke (Tonpei Hidari), to ‘connect' with a different village woman and hopes to get her grandson, Kesakichi (Seiji Kurasaki), to breakup with girlfriend Matsu (Junko Takada) and to start making a life for himself.


A beautiful yet somber look at the human existence and all of its ups and downs, The Ballad Of Narayama is a deliberately paced but wonderfully made film. At just over two-hours in length it is a bit of an investment but the acting is superb and the cinematography does a fantastic job of capturing the Japanese mountains and countryside where all of this is set. The picture is rife with symbolism, often time positing the idea that man is no different than animal in certain ways, using frequent brief scenes of animals in their natural environment contrasted with scenes of the villagers going about their business. It's an effective way to get the viewer to think about all of this, how life can sometimes feel meaningless and simultaneously offer us moments of great joy and pleasure, despite the inevitability of death waiting for us all.


Zegen:


Released in 1987, Zegen revolves around a man named Iheiji Muraoka (Ken Ogata) who jumps off a boat in 1901 and winds up in Hong Kong. Without a dime to his name, he manages to meet up with and befriend a group of Japanese immigrants and find work in a barber shop. A short time later, the Japanese Consulate decides that Iheiji is destined for better things and he sends him to Manchuria to spy on the Russians that are setting up a military installation in the area. Upon completing this mission, Iheiji is well-compensated for his trouble and decides to use his earnings to setup a brothel.


As time goes on, Iheiji becomes quite rich and proves a natural at making money in the flesh trade. He expands throughout Hong Kong and into other nearby territories, all while Japan and Russia start rattling sabers at one another. Soon enough, the actions of the Japanese government start having an effect on Iheiji's business developments.


Much lighter in tone than the first film in the set (and the third, which we'll get to shortly), Zegen is genuinely funny in spots, though not without darker moments (almost all of which involve the mistreatment of some of Iheiji's female employees at the hands of the men around them). It offers up some interesting social and political commentary, with Iheiji essentially setting up a brothel anywhere he can, so long as it's going to be close to where Japanese troops might be deployed (therefore ensuring himself an instant customer base), and it presents a fairly skewed version of what is, traditionally at least, a very reserved and conservative society. It's as interesting as it is quite amusing, and if it doesn't reach the depths of the emotion offered by the other two films in this set, that's okay, it's still a very well-made picture with some strong acting, particularly frequent Imamura collaborator Ken Ogata, and some great visuals.


Black Rain:


The final film in the set, 1989's Black Rain (which should certainly not be confused with the Ridley Scott film starring Michael Douglas, which was also released in 1989), which is based on the novel by Masuji Ibuse, is shot entirely in black and white, which somehow seems completely appropriate for the picture's subject matter.


The movie is set a few years after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and looks at the lives of the people who survived it and lived in its horrible aftermath. Many believed that they'd die slowly and painfully from radiation poisoning, and they weren't necessarily wrong, with cancer soon becoming all too common among them. If the lingering shadow of a painful death hanging over them wasn't enough, many of the residents also feel as if they are lesser citizens of Japan because of the contamination they carry through no fault of their own.


A young woman named Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka) appears healthy enough a few years after the bomb was dropped, but eventually does start to show signs of radiation poisoning herself. She, like many others in her country, want things back to 'normal' as soon as possible, to move past what's happened. Yasuko's family hopes to find someone for her to marry and start a family with but her proximity to the explosions proves a big turn off to potential suitors, even if she has the 'appropriate paperwork' to show them that she's healthy. As she ages, still single, her family begins to ostracize her, something that is only complicated when she finally does fall in love with a man who just so happens to be from a lower social class than her family.


Black Rain is, in a word, heartbreaking. It's a very well-made film, the scene of the atomic explosion in particular really resonating with the way that it is portrayed in the picture, shown as blindingly hot and instantly terrible yet still somehow not quite enough, if that makes sense. No filmed version could ever do justice to the real thing. Regardless, it isn't just the tragedy of the bomb drop that resonates here, but the way that the victims of the blast that manage to survive manage to convince themselves that they're almost deserving of what they're going through. Again, the theme of these people somehow being less deserving of a decent life runs through the film, we saw this in the first picture, and it's a vein that Imamura mines very effectively. The visuals here are remarkably strong and the performances uniformly excellent. It isn't always an easy film to watch, in fact it's pretty damn depressing, but good art should have the ability to make us feel, and this movie definitely does that. A hard picture to look and an impossible picture not to appreciate, Black Rain is an excellent picture.


The Video:


Each film in this set is presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition and presented on a 50GB disc framed at 1.85.1 widescreen, the first two films in color and the third in black and white. The Ballad Of Narayama, looks excellent, showing very strong detail and nice, accurate color reproduction. There's really very little print damage here, the image is nice and clean, and it looks properly film-like from start to finish. Zegen is, in terms of its transfer at least, a noticeable step down still looking quite good but having a somewhat softer, and sometimes slightly digitized, look to it. Detail is pretty decent, just not perfect, but you won't be hard pressed to spot some crush in some of the darker scenes. Thankfully, Black Rain's black and white transfer is excellent, showing excellent detail throughout and boasting proper contrast and strong black levels. Some softness is noticeable here and there but it seems to stem back to the photography, rather than the transfer itself. Overall, fans of Imamura's work should be quite pleased with how the picture quality has turned out with this release.


The Audio:


The three films in this collection each get an DTS-HD Mono track, in Japanese, with optional subtitles provided in English only. No issues to note here. The tracks are understandably limited in range but they aren't the type of films that really call for fancy 5.1 remixes or anything like that. The levels are properly balanced and the tracks are free of any hiss or distortion. Everything sounds appropriately clean here, and there's a reasonable amount of range noticeable at times. The subtitles are easy to read and free of any obvious typographical errors.


The Extras:


Each of the films in this collection gets an audio commentary from Japanese cinema expert Jaspar Sharp. If you're familiar with Sharp's work then you already know that he knows his stuff. Each of these three commentary tracks is a very well-researched examination of the film, loaded with history and trivia about the people who worked on it both in front of and behind the camera, the ideas on display in the film, what makes these works unique, influences that may have made their way into Imamura's work, how these films have been received over the years, locations, studio involvement, distribution history and lots, lots more all delivered with Sharp's typically strong eye for detail and insightful observation.


The rest of the extras are spread across the three discs as follows:


The Ballad Of Narayama:


One disc one we get the forty-eight-minute Age And Tradition featurette, which an appreciation of the film and director by Tony Rayns. In this lengthy assessment of Imamura and one of his consummate works, we're given a nice mix of history and insight into the impact that this entry in his filmography had on his career, thoughts on the quality of the performances and direction, an exploration of the themes that the film explores, the social and political issues that may have worked their way into the film and loads more.


The disc also includes two theatrical trailers, two teaser trailers, a still gallery, menus and chapter selection. Additionally, for the BD-Rom enabled, if you pop this disc into your drive you'll be able to access a PDF version of the film's original Japanese press kit.


Zegen:


The main extra on this disc is the forty-one-minute Sex And Country featurette which is another appreciation of this film and of Imamura himself by the Tony Rayns. Again, Rayns proves to be quite adapt at really laying out why Imamura's work is as lauded in arthouse film circles as it is, detailing not only the history of the picture but its social and artistic significance, exploring the themes that it deals with and offering up a lot of insight into its importance.


A still gallery, menus and chapter selection options finish things up on the second disc.


Black Rain:


Pain Aand Memory, which is fifty-eight-minutes in length, is yet another examination of Imamura and his work, once again by Tony Rayns. Like the other two features, this one peels back the layers of the film and really gets into a lot of detail about its history, how it ties into Imamura's other pictures and many of the theme that Black Rain explores as well as what makes it such an effective movie.


The disc also contains an interesting nineteen-minute Alternate Ending that the director made, in color and set in the modern day, but which was not used in the completed version of Black Rain. Imamura probably made the right decision here, as this doesn't quite feel ‘right' for the movie, but it's great to see it included here as it is a very interesting piece of his history.


There are also two brief interviews here. The first is a seven-minute piece with Yoshiko Tanaka. He speaks fondly about collaborating with the director and what it was like to act in this movie for him as well as thoughts on the movie itself. The second is an eight-minute talk with filmmaker Takashi Miike, who actually worked as Imamura's assistant director on Black Rain. He speaks here about what Imamura was like to work with and the importance of this job to his career.


Finishing up the extras on this disc are the film's original theatrical trailer, a still gallery, menus and chapter selection. Additionally, if you've got access to a BD-Rom you can explore this disc a bit and find the film's original Japanese press kit viewable in PDF format.


As far as the packaging goes, Arrow scores top marks. This set comes with a beautiful limited edition sixty-page booklet containing new writing on the films and the filmmaker by Tom Mes as well as technical notes on the presentation and credits for the three features as well as for this Blu-ray collection. The set also boasts some limited edition packaging featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tony Stella for each of the three films as well as for the box itself, which is quite sturdy. This all displays very nicely and while obviously it's the films that matter the most here, it's still worth noting the quality of the physical product as well.


Overall:


Survivor Ballads: Three Films by Shohei Imamura presents three very different but equally intriguing and effective pictures from an expert filmmaker. The presentations are strong for all three films and the collection is loaded with excellent extra features that do a great job of exploring and even sometimes explaining the pictures contained herein. Arrow Academy has done a great job with this collection. Highly recommended.

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

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