A brilliant hybrid of stage theatricality and bold colour anamorphic photography elevate this strange Japanese folk legend of a woman who desperately desires to die honourably in the hallowed heights of a mysterious mountain into a haunting and powerful artifact of Japanese cinema’s golden age.
The Ballad of Narayama (1958) dir. Keisuke Kinoshita
Starring: Kinuyo Tanaka, Teiji Takahashi, Yūko Mochizuki, Danko Ichikawa
By Alan Bacchus
I’ll be the first to admit the strangeness of Japanese culture and Japanese cinema as difficult to penetrate. The frequent themes of honour, formality and order, in extremis, invariables creates a rigid formality and striffness to even Japan’s most revered films. But beyond the depiction of these bizarre formalities exists some of the profoundly human emotions and conflicts and the reason why we continually reference Japanese cinema.
The Ballad of Narayama is no exception. Setting in the 19th century in a rural mountainous hinterland, Kinoshita’s Orin is a curious character, an elder woman, who in these later years seems to be setting up her own death. According the edict of her village, when one turns 70 he/she is obligated to sacrifice herself for an honourable death atop Mount Narayama. While we Westerners might think of the ritual as barbaric, to Orin, it’s honourable and at this point in her life the only thing she truly desires.
And so over the course of the film we see the often rigorous and emotionally shattering struggle for Orin reconcile the issues of her immediate family and set up the pieces for her journey to Narayama. Her son is of particular interest to her, a man who recently has become a widower and is set up with a local single woman from a neighbour village.
Equal to the peculiar customs of this story is the eye popping visual design of the picture. Like Orin’s faithfulness to her traditions, Kinoshita consciously emulates the traditions of studio-based cinema. The deliberately theatrical sets has the effect of closing off the outside world, zeroing in on Orin’s point of view of life. Kinoshita’s brilliant anamorphic lensing was on trend for the times, but within his frames he’s steadfastly old fashioned. The painted backdrops which double for night, day, sunrise and sunset make no attempt to mimic reality. But its Kinoshita’s use of expressive bold colours creating a stylized cinematic romanticism reminding us of the manufactured melodrama of Hollywood’s great studio era which is striking. We can’t help but think of studio-controlled artificiality of The Wizard of Oz or John Ford’s romanticism of nostalgia.
But within the artifice of the design Kinoshita’s choreographs some of the brillant mise-en-scene I’ve ever seen in cinema. His transitions from one scene to another often are constructed in camera, often pulling out sections from the set to reveal a new scene behind. Of course this is theatre staging 101, but I can’t think of a greater use of these stage and lighting techniques in cinema than here in The Ballad of Narayama.
There’s a sad melancholy of impending death which runs through the picture, and we feel its weight at all times. The potential tragedy though is not Orin’s death, but that it might come without the honour she desires, and articulated dramatically when she’s aggressively teased by the village children for having perfect teeth this late in her life – symbolically seen as safe and unlived life. Thus Orin grostequely disfigures her teeth and her face to compensate. The final moments, Orin’s slow journey to Narayama being carried by her son, on his back, are simply exquisite, heartbreaking and mindblowing powerful.
The Ballad of Narayama is available on Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection