By Chaz Lipp
A masked announcer, rhythmically clacking two blocks of wood together, appears on screen and announces the title directly. It’s a rather confrontational start to a highly stylized film that was shot on an obvious (but painstakingly detailed) set with painted mural backdrops. The quaint village is not placed directly in historical context, but it’s clear the dwellers do not have the benefits of modern, 20th century conveniences. A slow, droning narration is sung rather than spoken, often conveying nothing more insightful than what is being obviously acted-out on screen. Think of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s infamous commentary on Total Recall, only slightly more musical.
The Ballad of Narayama presents this calculatedly cruel tradition as something of a waking nightmare. The nightmare, in this case, belongs chiefly to Orin’s son, Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi). He cannot bear the thought of simply dumping his mother somewhere and letting her meet a brutally harsh end, exposed to the elements. The vividly beautiful color cinematography by Hiroyuki Kusuda evokes the feel of Hollywood’s golden age of Technicolor musicals, but the subject matter is quite obviously more troubling. Orin’s grandson Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa) cannot wait to be rid of Orin. It will leave more rice and beans for he and his wife, Matsu-yan (Keiko Ogasawara).
As played by Tanaka, Orin is surprisingly complacent about accepting her fate. She’s willing to martyr herself for what she believes is the good of the family. She even works to make sure her new daughter-in-law, Tama (Yuko Mochizuki), knows her secret fishing spot. On the other end of the spectrum is the painful sight of Matayan (Seiji Miyaguchi), the 70-year-old man who is understandably unwilling to be put out to pasture. His son (Yūnosuke Itō), while perhaps not as happy as Orin’s grandson, doesn’t seem to question the concept of abandoning the elderly and fights to see that his father be taken to Narayama.
The artificial lighting that signifies the change between night and day, the painted backdrops, the Styrofoam snow—all of it is easy to adjust to. But the braying musical narration isn’t quite as easy to swallow, especially when the Japanese lyrics take five times longer to hear then to read as subtitles. But I did find the instrumental score to be quite hypnotic. The traditional Japanese instrumentation takes some getting used to, but winds up creating a trance-like ambiance that fits the inevitability of this simple folk tale (based on the novel Men of Tohoku by Shichirō Fukazawa) very well.
The Ballad of Narayama is not an easy film to watch. Though the most disturbing visual image is Orin’s bloody gums after she loses some teeth, the atmosphere is deliberately queasy throughout as a result of the subject matter. Criterion has kept the DVD simple, adorning it with only a pair of trailers. The booklet contains a lengthy essay by film historian Philip Kemp that is well worth reading.