[Film Review] The Ballad of Narayama (1958) and (1983)

The Ballad of Narayama posters.jpg

English Title: The Ballad of Narayama
Original Title: Narayama bushikô
Year: 1958
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Genre: Drama
Director/Writer: Keisuke Kinoshita
based on the stories of Shichirô Fukazawa
Music: Chûji Kinoshita, Matsunosuke Nozawa
Cinematography: Hiroshi Kusuda
Kinuyo Tanaka
Teiji Takahashi
Yûko Mochizuki
Danko Ichikawa
Seiji Miyaguchi
Keiko Ogasawara
Yûnosuke Itô
Eijirô Tôno
Rating: 8.1/10

The Ballad of Narayama 1958.jpg


English Title: The Ballad of Narayama
Original Title: Narayama bushikô
Year: 1983
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Genre: Drama
Director/Writer: Shôhei Inamura
based on the novel of Shichirô Fukazawa
Music: Shinichirô Ikebe
Hiroshi Kanazawa
Shigeru Komatsubara
Masao Tochizawa
Ken Ogata
Sumiko Sakamoto
Tonpei Hidari
Aki Takejô
Seiji Kurasaki
Junko Takada
Mitsuko Baishô
Taiji Tonoyama
Shôichi Ozawa
Fujio Tokita
Rating: 8.0/10

The Ballad of Narayama 1983.jpg

Double bill time! Two cinematic adaptations of Shichirô Fukazawa’s eponymous novella, published in 1956, THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA narrates a 19th century tale-of-woe of the unconscionable, probably apocryphal ubasute ritual in Japan’s rural region, where when an infirm elderly becomes a septuagenarian, he or she will be carried on the back of their firstborn, to the peak of the Narayama mountain and left there to die (presumably by starvation, but if one is lucky, frozen to death could be a more merciful way to go). This benighted premise is savagely inhuman of course, but under its specific milieu, where poverty and shortage of food is rampant, ubasute is considered as a great merit of self-sacrifice (leaving the food to younger members of the family, even some of them are contemptible ingrates) and is an honor ordained by the Almighty, one can fairly empathize with its rationale.

The story is about the household of the widower Tatsuhei, whose mother Orin is 69-year-old and upholds a perversely bullish belief about her imminent fate, although she is less infirm than one may expect of her age, and feels grossly ashamed by her 33 healthy teeth, which are mocked by other villagers, including her eldest grandson Kesakichi, it becomes a perturbing anomaly against her lofty resignation to the immanent, so much so that she is resolute to crack them after Tatsuhei successfully finds a new wife, a recent widow Tamayan from the nearby village, the last thing hanging on her mind before she is fully ready to her ascending, piggybacked on Tatsuhei’s back, her final journey is preordained with grisly skeletons, ominous cawing crows and a poignant farewell.

The 1958 version is first and foremost, a kabuki extravagance exuberantly presented on a soundstage and coherently accompanied by a lugubrious singsong narration and laments, with camera shots deftly segueing from scene to scene to form a theatrical continuity (often by dimming the light and swerving the dolly), which vests the film its essential filmic quality: a fluidity that sets itself apart from its stage stock-in-trade. Furthermore, Keisuke Kinoshita utilizes shockingly imposing chromatic stratagems to invigorate the story, an indelible sequence like the rules-imparting ceremony shot in a ghostly green with an awe-inspiring rigidity is just off the top of my head, and later after the mother-son duo’s trek to the mountaintop and their heartrending valediction, a numinous snowfall precipitously grants Orin’s last wish, and the film finishes with a surprising location shot of a streaking train to the village where the legends take place.

Kinoshita’s film is a victorious mediums-blending enterprise, boasting a transfixing leading performance from Kinuyo Tanaka (49-years-old then), whose geriatric mimicry is simply optimal. Everyone else is less impactful in juxtaposition, including Teiji Takahashi’s comparatively bland Tatsuhei, only Yûko Mochizuki lends a lingering impression to a corn-fed, down-to-earth Tamayan.

Shôhei Inamura’s 1983 Palme d’Or-bagging reinterpretation is affirmatively not cut from the same cloth with Kinoshita’s in terms of its methodology, a more realistic-looking jidaigeki (period drama) is confirmed right from its opening aerial shot of the vast terrain where the story will unfolds, and Inamura’s peculiar obsession of the dynamism between food and sex takes a center stage here, in concert with his unstinting scrutiny to the place’s flora and fauna (enhancing its fable-like happenstances), and certainly he applies a more critical and somewhat derisive eye to the have-nots, or humanity per se, the villagers’ folly and horseplay is heightened by the addition of Risuke (Hidari, ebulliently wallows in the slow-witted raunchiness), a character doesn’t appear in its predecessor, another son of Orin, the younger brother of Tatsuhei, who is scourged by a stench-emanate condition which repulses everyone around him, perpetually ridiculed, debased and patronized, apparently thick in head and sexually unsatisfied (a dog is his closest friend, nudge nudge), how to find a woman for him (not to tie the knot, but to shuck off his virgin status) is big challenge in Orin’s bucket list, and God has a mysterious way to answer her supplication.

But elsewhere, Inamura has no qualms about inserting his scalpel into the enmeshed fiber of depravity, still-born is disregarded in the brook, debauchery is conducted with wanton insouciance (involving a sterling Mitsuko Baishô officiously commanding uncoupled farmhands to navigate her enshrined body according to her husband’s dying wish to break a family curse), in this case, even Orin herself, cannot come out blameless in the villagers’ collective barbarism towards a thief’s family (she knowingly sends a voracious girl to her undoing, not to mention she is pregnant with her grandson’s child), in order to divvy up their ill-gotten sustenance, murderous plan is carried out in shocking lucidity (whereas Kinoshita only gives an oblique glimpse to the sordid affair) which is not at all commensurate with the story’s latter tear-jerking passage, also Tatsuhei’s patricidal past boldly surfaces as a searing reminder of what he is going to do this time with his mother, this layer of contradiction is both intriguing and frustrating.

In the 1983 edition, it is Ken Ogata’s portrayal of Tatsuhei mostly holds our attention, especially in his backbreaking mountain-scaling effort, his physical exertion is all too visible (with Inamura’s whimsical dab of mysticism); Sumiko Sakamoto makes for a competent Orin too, only occasionally her agile gait slightly betrays her 47-years-old real age, hardly one year older than Ogata.

A final verdict, both films are unequivocally cinematic masterpieces with disparate modalities in their makings, but fundamentally, they fully draw on our eternal anxiety about filial piety and its ensuing trepidation about how to cope with our parents’ ultimate departure, and work it up with worthy deference, astounding artistry and a humble but blind devotion to the tradition and the unknown that might or might not chime in with a viewer’s perspective.

referential films: Kinoshita’s TWENTY-FOUR EYES (1954, 8.0/10); Inamura’s THE EEL (1997, 8.3/10).

Oscar 1958 - The Ballad of Narayama.jpg


Oscar 1983 - The Ballad of Narayama.jpg

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