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The Ballad Of Narayama

The Ballad Of Narayama

By Arpad Lukacs • March 25th, 2012
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Toei Co. Ltd.

Original release: April 29th, 1983
Running time: 130 minutes

Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese

Director: Shohei Imamura
Writer: Shohei Imamura, Shichiro Fukazawa

Cast: Ken Ogata, Sumiko Sakamoto, Tompei Hidari

Shohei Imamura’s 1983 classic takes us back to 19th century Japan, to an isolated village in the mountainous Tohoku region. The everyday life of the residents there is governed by very strict rules and laws and survival is a constant battle against nature.

One of these laws – which is to become a centrepiece for the story – is the practice of ‘ubasute’, whereby the time an elderly person reaches the age of 70, they have to be carried to the mountain top and left there to die. Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto) is 69 and is preparing her family for life without her. Her husband, who disappeared many decades ago, had refused to carry his mother to the mountain and brought shame on the entire family.

The Ballad Of Narayama

Orin will not let this happen again and readying her reluctant son, Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata), with extreme strictness for their final journey together.

While much of the story revolves around Orin’s journey in the final act of the film, in the lead up to that we also come to know her family, others in the village and some more of the truly abhorrent laws and beliefs that have an impact on the lives of everyone there. Tatsuhei’s younger brother, Risuke (Tompei Hidari), for instance is a victim of another law, which rules that only first born sons can have wives, and therefore sex. Risuke, as a result, is sexually frustrated and occasionally takes this out on the neighbours’ unsuspecting female dog.

The very same law also means that new-born baby boys are often killed without ever having a chance at life. In one horrific scene, capital punishment for theft is administered by a mob on an entire family – children included. They are all buried alive.

The Ballad Of Narayama

All of this terror is contrasted with images of the natural environment and the village. We make comparisons between people and animals throughout; Scenes of people having sex are juxtaposed with copulating animals and human conflict is shown with wild animals hunting each other down. The Ballad of Narayama is a visually creative and the film makes the very best of the beautiful Tohoku region.

Orin’s final journey up the mountain feels deeply sinister with images of mist and mystery. Their arrival at Orin’s final destination creates an unforgettable impact as they walk through a field of hundreds of skeletons of previously abandoned old people on the foggy mountain top accompanied by a cloud of crows waiting for Orin.

I couldn’t help but notice that most of what we would consider abhorrent behaviour in the film was justified by religious belief and superstition. A dying man in the village is convinced that his household god is angry and put a curse on his home. This is a concept that still lingers on in Japanese cinema; the 2003 horror Ju-on, and its remake The Grudge a year later, were based on a fear of this idea.

The Ballad Of Narayama

The dying man’s last request to his wife is to sleep with every man in the village in order to lift the curse. The compulsory abandonment of old people is also something that has to be done in order the honour the god of the mountain. If you dishonour this god which sits at the top of “god-hierarchy” in this world of many gods, he will be displeased and that also means that people in the village might end up hurting you. There is a direct correlation between belief and violence in The Ballad of Narayama – which I felt made the film particularly realistic.

I was glad to learn that ubasute was a custom that was never widely practised in Japan; only isolated accounts remain known. I couldn’t help seeing the irony that this comes from a country that now has a reputation of a higher degree of respect for the older generation than we do here in the western side of the globe.

The Ballad Of Narayama confirmed my views that the history of humanity, while fascinating, is riddled with lengthy sequences of cautionary tales of terrible mistakes and needless injustice which should be examined carefully in order to make the future better than the past was.

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.

Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.

Have a look at Arpad's photography site, and you can follow him on Twitter @arpadlukacs.

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