The Ballad of Narayama came late in the career of director Shôhei Imamura who claimed that a viewing of Kurosawa’s Rashomon inspired him to imagine that a new freedom of expression was possible in post-war Japan. Starting as an assistant to Yasujirō Ozu, he soon was dissatisfied, as he wanted to show a different take on how he saw Japan.
He left Shochiku for a better salary at Nikkatsu and became the assistant director to Yuzo Kawashima, who was known for his tragic satire. From his first film as a director, Nusumareta Yokujō (Stolen Desire), he courted controversy, unafraid to show the lower caste of Japan and frank sexuality.
Imamura saw himself as more of a cultural anthropologist than a filmmaker and was all about being an iconoclast, even starting his own studio and pushing for projects that would fail, having to make small films for most of the late 70’s and early 80’s due to Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubō (Profound Desires of the Gods), a deeply personal film that took a year and a half to make and wasn’t seen as a success at the time.
By the 1980’s, Imamura was able to mount larger-scale movies, including this one, a remake of Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1958 The Ballad of Narayama.
A key member of the Japanese New Wave, Imamura is one of the few directors to keep making films through the 21st century and the only director from Japan to win two Palme d’Or awards (for this movie and The Eel).
My grandmother died last month. I’m not telling you that out of a need for sympathy, but to tell you where my head was while watching this movie. It’s about ubasute, which is translated as abandoning an old woman, which was the ancient Japanese practice of carrying an infirm or elderly relative to a mountain or other desolate place and leaving them to die.
You may think that this is a barbaric practice. But in our world of modern medicine that keeps people alive well beyond the time that they should be deceased, I wonder sometimes that we keep people with us for so long that it becomes torture. I don’t have the answers but I’ve tried to keep an open mind as I watched this movie, sometimes overflowing with emotion.
In a small Japanese village in the 19th century, Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto, who Imamura cast in two other of his movies, The Pornographers and Warm Water Under a Red Bridge; she won the Japanese Best Actress from Nihon Academy for her performance in this film, as well as a kiss from Orson Welles) realize that at the age of 69, she is but months from having to go up the mountain to die. She’s of sound mind and body, but doesn’t want to be like the old men who fight every step of the way, screaming that they want to stay alive.
Over the next year, we see her life, whether it’s the negative of young people referring to her as an old witch or the positive, where we see her fix the problems of the village, help her son Tatsuheito (Ken Ogata) to find a wife and set things right before stoically going on to her death in the snow.
As we see the lives of the villagers, we also see nature intrude, whether that’s through the birds in the trees or the snake that is always near, even in moments of incredible joy.
How strongly did Sakamoto believe in this role? She extracted four of her teeth just to play the scene where Orin smashes out all of her teeth to convince her family that she must die.
Beyond Sakamoto’s awards, this movie also won best film at the Japanese Academy Awards numerous best actor awards for Ogata, who played Sakamoto’s son, a best supporting actress award for Mitsuko Baisho, best sound and an excellence in cinematography award.
This is a film of juxtaposition, of the lowest and most base of humanity in contrast with ones that will sacrifice everything. Moments of sheer beauty stand hand in hand with scenes of violence and pain. It’s a heartbreaking film yet one that reaffirmed my belief in life, in the cyclical nature of death and rebirth. And it is by no means an easy watch.
You can find The Ballad of Narayama on the new Survivor Ballads: Three Films By Shohei Imamura set from Arrow Films. This is a must-buy, as each film demands to be part of any film lover’s collection. You can get yours from MVD.