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The Ballad of Narayama (Shohei Imamura) 1983


    The opening titles of Shohei Imamuraís Palm DíOr-winning masterpiece The Ballad of Narayama tell us that itís set about one hundred years ago in Northern Japan, but it feels like itís taking place somewhere that lies much farther away in time and space. The opening shots of the film are taken from a helicopter, and find the tiny village where the rest of the story takes place nestled among the snowy mountains in the wilderness. The world that surrounds this hamlet utterly dwarfs it, and as a result, it places the human drama that plays out there into proper perspective. Spanning a year in the lives of the villagers, the movie opens as Orin, the matriarch of a family is turning 69 years old. Despite her age, sheís still exceptionally productive and healthy and is able to catch more fish than anyone else in the village. Certainly sheís more of an asset to her family than Risuke, her lazy, smelly son who rarely does any work and engages in bestiality because he canít attract any women. Perhaps more importantly, Orin carries with her knowledge of history that the others lack. When she dies, the loss will be great to both her family and community. Thatís why itís so galling when we learn that when she reaches the age of 70, village law dictates that she must go to the top of Mount Narayama to die. 

    Most of Balladís running time is spent immersing the audience in the villageís culture so that they can grow to understand why the community has created a rule that seems to us arbitrary and insensitive. The people who populate this town are poor by any standards, and resources are so limited a bad harvest always looms as a threat. The families can only sustain a few children, so as more are born, the boys are left to die (usually in a rice paddy where they might make fertilizer), and the girls are sold, presumably into prostitution. Tatsuhei, Orinís more responsible son, willingly asks his wife to have sex with Risuke when the lazy brotherís sexual frustrations threaten the life of the familyís horse. When a man is caught stealing crops from his neighbors, the villagers quickly pass judgment (even if several of them dip into the evidence themselves) and decide to kill his entire family by burying them alive. You want to lash out at them during a sequence like this, but the movie does too good a job of making you realize that the thin line between death and survival here probably makes this brutality, and the rule that sends seniors to their dooms, justified. Indeed, itís more than telling that Orin herself, whose own mortality is quickly coming to an end because of the requirements of the villageís laws, willingly participates in the punishment of the transgressors. Death is accepted as a fact of life in the village. In its grimmest moments, Narayama makes Western tragedies such as Thomas Hardyís ďJude The ObscureĒ look lighthearted in comparison.

     Not all of Ballad is hopelessly glum, however. The first half of the film, especially, is filled with sequences that accentuate the variety of life and the good-natured perseverance of these people. There are ribald sex jokes and raucous comic sequences scattered throughout. Orinís small grandchildren taunt her and call her an ďold demonĒ, showing how little respect these people have for their elders. The villagers sing songs and have festivals, showing that not all of their culture is negative. When Orinís friend Okane fears sheís dying of natural causes before reaching her seventieth birthday, sheís saddened because she wonít be able to join her ancestors on Narayama. As much as their tradition seems wildly out of place to us, they obviously take comfort in it. Death becomes slightly less scary when one can determine when it happens. When her son Tatsuhei takes on a new wife, Orin passes on what knowledge she can to her. The new wife is eager to show Orin how willing she is to work though, and earns Orinís trust as a result. Their relationship is an endearing passing of the guard that is all the more moving when you realize whatís at stake. The shocking scene where Orin cracks out her own teeth on a stone so that her family will be less discouraged by her good health initially seems far from our understanding, but once we appreciate her relationship with Tatsuheiís new wife, we can comprehend why she does it. 

    Imamura fills his film with lyrical passages that show us beautiful nature photography. Often, through montage, he connects the actions of the humans with those of the creatures that live around them. Whether weíre seeing rats feast on a dead snake, a snake eating a rat, snakes copulating as some humans nearby do, insects eating a frog, or a raccoon stealing eggs from a chicken coop, parallels can be drawn to human behavior. If these juxtapositions seem a bit simple that doesnít mean that the people always exhibit simple, animalistic behavior. On her last day in the village, Orinís actions are anything but selfish. She obviously has come to terms with her fate, and self-preservation seems the farthest thing from her mind. She plants seeds quietly, both as a way of continuing her work, and making a gesture toward the continuation of life. Before setting off, she ties up various loose ends by spending time with her family members that will leave her family happier and healthier. When the village elders come to tell her of her departure, the ritual is surprisingly infused with much spirituality and solemnity. An old man visits her, proclaiming her love and begging her not to leave, but she insists she musts, while compassionately trying to assuage his sense of loss.

    Her subsequent piggyback ride up to mount Narayama is an absolutely amazing sequence. Itís nearly wordless, since the village rules dictate that the journey must be, but there is such a fierce mixture of emotions threatening to boil over during every minute of it. The entire film has been preparing us for this trip, but as itís happening itís still an overwhelming experience. On one hand the movie has made you understand and sympathize with Orinís placid, necessary resignation to her fate, but her son Tatsuhei is carrying him, and his feelings on the journey are far from resolved and equally valid. Their trip pits them against the physical topography of the mountain but also pushes them closer to nature than theyíve been in the past. When they pass fish or a deer, they have an uneventful relationship with the animal for the first time, which suggests that thereís something natural and right about their journey. Orinís silence acceptance only further pushes the feeling that this behavior is okay, and all of the film up to this point has worked so we can understand how she can remain calm in this circumstance. Still, Imamura also is simultaneously underlining how awful it is, stirring up in us a complex ambivalence. In a moment where Tatsuhei goes off alone to scout the territory, and he returns to find his mother missing itís absolutely shattering because sheís so resoundingly gone, but this tearjerking moment is only a preface of whatís to come when they reach the top of the mountain and come face to face with death.

     The Ballad of Naramaya is an indelible and transfixing poem of a movie that packs a substantial and complicated emotional punch. The way that the women in Orinís household quickly divide her belongings after she leaves shows that thereís no room for sentiment among these destitute people. Imamura follows his teary-eyed conclusion up with a far less weepy, almost blackly comic, scene to put all of the movieís respectful reserve into perspective. The final moments of the film, in which a song that has often been sung during the movie (ďif it snows, sheíll be released from painĒ) is repeated, show just how much of this cultureís invention is driven by practicality. When times are as tough as they are here, solace must be found in the smallest of comforts. Imamuraís meditative ending reveals a conflicted psyche that bubbles underneath each of these peopleís traditions, but at the same time presents the grand sacrifices made in the film as a hopeful conviction in those who make them that when future generations need to make similar sacrifices they will do so as well. By giving up the transient and immediate folklore that exists in their culture these people are better ensuring their long-term survival.


* * * * Masterpiece 


Jeremy Heilman