“Narayama bushiko” (Ballad of Narayama, 1983, directed by Imamura Shohei, seems to me to run on too long (130 minutes). Set in 19th-century Hokkaido, the movie shows a mountain village in which any population increase would lead to starvation. Those who reach the age of 70 are taken up a mountain to die, so that the young may eat. The custom was called ubasuteyama.
Orin (Sakamoto Sumiko, who was only in her mid-40s) is very eager to do her duty, though she is still able to work, indeed does most of the housework, and is better than anyone else around at catching fish. Her son Tatsuhei (Ogata Ken, who played Mishima in Paul Shrader’s biopic and starred in Imamura’s “Vengeance Is Mine”) is very reluctant to lose her, especially reluctant to take her up the mountains to die. She insists that “a law is a law. Kindness has nothing to do with it.”
Orin does not fear death, but is concerned about how her family will cope without her. She arranges a new wife to Tatsuhei and trains her before her date with death. She also arranges a woman to relieve her other son’s virginity. (As in Kinoshita’s earlier, highly stylized [kabuki-ish] 1958 adaptation of Fukuzawa Shichiro’s 1956 novel. there is a cowardly thieving neighbor man who is overdue to make his own journey to death on the mountain.)
Life is harsh for the humans and for the prey of hawks and owls. (Carrion-eating crows are abundant and frequently shown, too.) Not for the first time, Imamura shows human animality, though counterpoised to the bravery of Orin and her and Tatsuhei’s compassion.
The movie contains some gorgeous nature photography (cinematographer Tochizawa Masao) counterpoised to the representation of the harsh culture. The sex is brutish (naturalistic rather than realist) rather than bawdy as in other Imamura movie (both earlier and later ones). Tatsuhei carrying his mother on his back to Narayama, is somewhat sentimental, but Orin is determined to make a good death on schedule before winter begins. Their trip is particularly scenic (the movie begins and ends with helicopter shots of a village blanketed in snow in a mountain valley.)
As with many Japanese movies not scored by Takemitsu Toru, the musical soundtrack strikes my ears as inapt and occasionally annoying. The various forms of population control of the village are painful to watch without electric guitar accompaniment IMHO.
Imamura’s film won the Palme d’or, the highest honor at the 1983 Cannes International Film Festival. Though my favorite Imamura movie is “The Eel” (Unagi), which also won the Palme d’or, “The Ballad of Nayarama” is probably his best one.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray