The Ballad of Narayama (1958) is a film I’d not heard of before yesterday, but as I was searching for Criterion films to add to my collection, the film’s plot caught my attention. The film, directed by Keisuke Kinoshita, is modeled after a kabuki play (classic Japanese dance-drama) and tells the story of a remote village where anyone who reaches the age of 70 must be taken to Narayama (a distant mountain) and left there to die of exposure. Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) is a 69 year old grandmother who has resolved to make the journey to Narayama when the new year comes, but first she wants to make sure her family’s affairs are in order.
From the start the film looks like it’s a stage play: a narrator introduces the story and narrates various sections through song. I was worried at first that I would find a narrator distracting, but it flows in and out of the film so seamlessly that after a while you don’t even notice. I also like how there’s not even a pretense of realism: the action is clearly taking place on a stage and when a scene is done, the background will literally fall away to reveal the next scene.
While the film shows various aspects of village life throughout the year, I feel that most of all the film displays the contrast between Orin, who happily accepts her fate, and Mata (Seiji Miyaguchi), a man past 70 who refuses to journey to Narayama, even though he shames his family (and himself) by refusing to go. The difference in how they meet their ends couldn’t be more different: while Orin is left serenely awaiting death on the mountain, Mata is dragged kicking and screaming by his son, and finally resists so much that he falls off a cliff. The message couldn’t be more clear: not following tradition only leads to heartbreak and pain. You’re also left feeling nothing but contempt for Mata after seeing how calmly Orin accepts what must be done.
The one thing about this film that confuses me however, is the ending. After Orin is left on Narayama, her son returns to his new wife and she consoles him with the knowledge that they can travel to Narayama together someday (as they are the same age). The scene abruptly cuts to a black and white shot of a train pulling in at a station, presumably where the old village used to stand. I’m sure we’re meant to gather something from this transition to the present, but I’m not sure what that message is supposed to be.
The Ballad of Narayama is a beautiful film that tells a very sad story. You’ll definitely be in tears by the end. Let me know what you think about this film in the comments below and have a great day!
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