Director: Shôhei Imamura
Screenplay: Shôhei Imamura
Based on a novel by: Shichirô Fukazawa
Starring: Ken Ogata, Sumiko Sakamoto, Tonpei Hidari, Aki Takejô
Producer: Shôhei Imamura
Running Time: 130 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
And so we reach the final entry in my triple bill of Shôhei Imamura films and probably my favourite. Winner of the Palme D’Or in 1983, beating films by Robert Bresson, Martin Scorsese and Andrei Tarkovsky, I would describe The Ballad of Narayama as the best entry point to Imamura’s work (from the four of his films that I’ve seen). Although it shares similarities to Profound Desires of the Gods, it’s more accessible in terms of plotting and contains a fair dose of humour that can be quite broad but is balanced effectively enough to not detract from the power of the drama.
Adapted from the novel of the same name (which had been made into a film previously), with added scenes from The Jinmus of Tôhoku (both written by Fukazawa Shichirô), The Ballad of Narayama is set in a small remote village, high up in a mountain, away from any trace of society. We aren’t told in what period the film is set, my guess would be around 100 years ago, but it’s not clear. The inhabitants live a difficult life, toiling the fields to grow enough food to keep their families alive. They live by a strict code that includes the tradition that once you reach the ripe old age of 70, you should climb the treacherous mountain, giving your life to it’s God that sees over the village. The film centres around grandmother Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto) and her family. She has just about reached that magic number and once she accepts her fate she busies herself in tying up all of her children and grandchildren’s loose ends, ensuring the family remains strong and happy after she has gone.
The real beauty of The Ballad of Narayama is the way it constantly subverts your view of what is ‘right’ and ‘humane’. The rules and values of the village are brutally harsh on the surface. As well as the ‘up the mountain’ tradition, their ways of dealing with theft are horrific – a family is buried alive for such a crime. However, Imamura has a way of making (most of) these seem justifiable through the truly equal way of life the villagers enjoy. Everything they do seems to hinge on balance. Orin is ashamed of her good health – the children always make fun of the fact that she still has all of her front teeth. She goes as far as to knock them out with a rock to give the impression of ageing (actress Sakamoto actually had them removed for the role!). This is due to the fact that she feels guilty she is eating as much food as the rest of the family, meaning an extra mouth to feed during hard times. This selflessness and focus on the preservation of the family unit beyond one’s own life is key to the film. It sounds like an advert for communism on paper, but propaganda doesn’t seem like Imamura’s intention. Instead, he’s interested in having us compare our own values against seemingly backward ones to judge who’s are the most humane. The fact that he originally intended to open the film with a scene of a modern-day family dumping their grandmother in an old people’s home is testament to this. I’m glad he lost this though as it would have been far too blunt.
It’s an emotionally powerful film too, which is what gave it that edge over Profound Desires of the Gods for me. The heft of this comes in the final 45 minutes. Once Orin is content that she has done all she can for her family she finally requests the village elders grant her passage up the mountain and her son Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata) agrees to carry her up there. This journey is played out slowly and practically silently (the rules state that those ascending to end their life must not utter a word) as Tatsuhei struggles up the uncompromising terrain. When they approach the summit they are greeted by a carpet of skeletal remains, with crows looming over them up on the rocks. Orin signals towards the spot she finds most suitable and her son leaves her to meet her God. It’s an utterly beautiful moment despite the potentially disturbing surroundings, further demonstrating the power of the film’s ability to toy with your beliefs and feelings. It’s not a depressing scene either, just a deeply touching one. Orin is so at peace and happy with her life and the forthcoming life of her family, that it makes her decision to make that journey feel like the perfect thing to do. Her death certainly looks to be more preferable to what most of us will be treated to – suffering for weeks, months or years in a crowded hospital. Imamura doesn’t sugar coat it too much though as he juxtaposes Orin’s passing with that of an old man from the village, an unwanted burden to his son, who has dragged his father up and throws him off the mountain’s edge, sending his frail body cartwheeling over rocks and through trees.
The film is full of these juxtapositions, making for an experience that is as thought-provoking and grubbily naturalistic as it is beautiful. The frequent emphasis on sex and some scenes of brutality and bawdy humour may put off some viewers, but you’d be hard-pressed to find such a hard-edged film with as much humanity and beauty within. A true gem.
The Ballad of Narayama is released on Dual Format Blu-Ray & DVD as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series on 24th October. I was sent the DVD version and the picture and sound quality were excellent other than some of the night scenes being a little overly dark to make out everything that was happening. This could be due to the source material though. As with the rest of Eureka’s Imamura releases, there is an extremely insightful interview with Tony Rayns as well as their ever-dependable series of booklets containing essays, interviews and behind the scenes stills.