In contrast to Imamura’s later (1983) and more famous version, Kinoshita’s 1958 “Ballad of Narayama,” is so stylized (kabuki-style singsong exposition accompanied by shamisen, shot entirely in a studio with pained sets, except for the final shot of a train) that it’s difficult to feel much about the woman turning 70 (Tanaka Kinuyo [Life of Oharu, Ugetsu, Sansho], who was only 48 at the time) and who is very eager to be taken up the mountain and left exposed in the snow to die. (A male neighbor, Mata (Miyaguchi Seiji) in vivid contrast, clings desperately to life, even though his family has stopped feeding him; he is carried kicking and screaming rather than receiving the loving transport her widower son Tatsuhei (Takahashi Teiji) provides his mother, Orin.
Knocking out her still-complete and functional set of teeth in shame (exacerbated by the mocking of her bratty grandson, Kesakichi (Ishikawa Danshi) is pretty extreme, especially for someone like me with a recent implant. There is no sense of the desperation giving rise to obasute (exposing the elderly to feed more productive, or at least younger family members) in Kinoshita’s version, as there is in the far more realistic (or is it naturalistic?) Imamura version. Both challenge martyrdom to dubious belief structures (like, say the divinity of the emperor? My example not theirs…).
The story was not a kabuki play, but derived from a novel about a possibly legendary custom (obasut). It has a lot of singing, even for a Kinoshita Keisuke film (as usual, supplied by his brother, Chûji, augmented by Nozawa Mastunosuke). And, also as usual, it was shot by their brother-in-law, Kusuda Hiroshi.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray