Bleak “Ballad of Orin” (1977)

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Shinoda’s 1977 “Ballad of Orin” (the Japanese title, “Hanare goze Orin,” means “Orin, the Blind Woman”) seems longer than its 109-minute running time, though containing striking images of a northern (at least snow-covered) coastal village and the oppression of the title character (played by Shinoda’s wife and muse Iwashita Shima, who won the Japanese Academy Award for her performance). The present is the beginning of the 20th century when Japan is at war with Russia.

There are flashbacks to the time the blind (since birth) six-year-old girl was abandoned by her mother (her father already being gone from the scene) and guided by a kindly drifter, Tsurukawa Senzo (Harada Yoshio, Rônin-gai, Still Walking, Someday), who is later hunted down and accused of murder. He took her to a house of blind musicians (goz,e singing and accompanying themselves on the samizen) from which she was expelled for sexual laxity (after being raped). The only occupational niches other than being an itinerant musician (goze) or being a masseuse of a prostitute and a single musician is generally assumed to be a prostitute.

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Orin has no sense that things might be different and women not regarded and treated so badly (Mizoguchi territory?). Tsurukawa is diffident and does not act on the attraction that is reciprocal but not acted on. (I’m not at all sure that he is the same man who originally took Orin to the goze school; if it was another man, he was also selfless in marked contrast to the rapacious men who populate Orin’s unseen world.)

There are lots of “pillow shots” (objects in room, though also shots of exteriors without the characters being shown in the frame). Though his background was in theater history rather than visual arts, the scenes in Shinoda films were always beautifully framed (whether relevant or not, and Orin could not see any of the surroundings or objects the viewer of the film does). Like “Himiko,” it was shot by the great Miyagawa Kazuo (Rashomon, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff), who received a Japanese Academy Award for his work. Takemitsu supplied his usual percussive, unlyrical music for the tragic goings-on onscreen.

The movie has some fervent admirers. Though I was mostly bored by “Ballad of Orin” (and by “Himiko”), it does not make me think that Shinoda’s skills were in decline: he went on to make two later movies I consider more interesting and satisfying: “Macarthur’s Children” and “Moonlight Serenade.”

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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