Many naughty children running low on filial piety have probably been told the folktale about a man who took his son along when he abandoned his senile father on a mountain to die only to have his son later do the same thing to him. In Japan, the mythical practice of “obasute” or “ubasute” is a kind of Logan’s Run equivalent in which elderly people elect to remove themselves from society in order to reduce the burden on the young. The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考, Narayama-bushi Ko) has, perhaps, taken on an additional degree of pathos in ageing Japan in which many elderly people find themselves metaphorically cast out from a society in which they have become the majority, but the idea of “obasute” is intended to be a lesson to the young to treasure their elders and accept the responsibility to care for those who can no longer care for themselves in the knowledge that they too will one day be old.
Keisuke Kinoshita is sometimes criticised for his supposed sentimentalism but his central concern was always in the redemptive power of the relationships between people, that there is always kindness even in the worst of circumstances and that this is enough for hope to survive. In telling the sorry tale of Narayama in which those of over 70-years-of-age are forced into a ritual suicide by social convention, Kinoshita opts for alienation in deliberately shifting into a theatrical register inspired by kabuki featuring obvious studio sets, stylised action, and traditional narration, but his decision to pull back makes the message all the more painful, as does the insistence on the timelessness of his tale.
Long ago in the distant feudal past, 69-year-old Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) knows that it will soon be time for her widowed son, Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi), to carry her to Narayama where she hopes to die of exposure in the New Year snows. She has made her peace with this, it is the will of the gods and she has no call to disobey. Her son, however, is distraught to think of the time he will be expected to carry his elderly mother to a remote spot in the mountains and leave her there, alone, to die of cold and starvation. When a messenger arrives from Orin’s home village to propose a match for Tatsuhei, a recently widowed woman of exactly the same age – Tama (Yuko Mochizuki), Orin is overjoyed – she can go to Narayama without fear or worry, her son and grandsons will be looked after even after she is gone.
The tradition began because the villages in this region are extremely poor. Tatsuhei and Orin will be enjoying their one and only bowl of white rice for the year in celebration of Bon. Orin’s self-centred grandson Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa) has made up a horrible song about his grandma in which he criticises her for still having all her own teeth at 70 – implying that, as she is not malnourished enough to have lost them, she must have been greedy and taken more than her fair share of food. Unable to bear such reproach, Orin smashes out her own front teeth to better conform to the conventions of her society and make herself a more acceptable sacrifice to the gods as a good and pious woman.
This early horrific act is perhaps the key in illuminating Kinoshita’s gentle critique of social conformity as a tool of social control – something which had become increasingly apparent during the militarist era. Orin, a kind and decent woman, is herself complicit in this abhorrent custom – her acceptance of it is part of her goodness, a sign of her altruistic self-sacrificing nature, but her own unwillingness to challenge the darker aspects of the society in which she lives leads only to their perpetuation and an ongoing descent into unkindness and cruelty.
Tatsuhei, a good and pious son, cannot reconcile himself to his mother’s fate, while his own son, Kesakichi, openly mocks his grandmother for not going sooner and Kesakichi’s pregnant girlfriend (Keiko Ogasawara) looks on enviously at the extra beans on offer if there were one less mouth to feed. Old and bent, Orin still plays a vital part in her community – she harvests the rice while Kesakichi lounges in trees, and she alone knows the best place to catch trout, a valuable skill in a village where food is scarce. Despite the possibility for disaster, Orin and Tama bond instantly as kindred spirits, both kind people in an often unkind world. It’s to Tama that Orin finally divulges her knowledge – something the village will be poorer for when she is gone, having passed her familial responsibilities to another woman and seen her son happily settled with a perfectly suited second wife.
When Tatsuhei returns, broken, after having performed the dreaded ritual he watches his own cruel son laughing and joking from within their shared home, caring only for himself and his easy pleasures. Tama, equally upset over the loss of Orin with whom she had bonded as mother, tries to comfort her husband but is eventually overcome by the tragedy of life, taking comfort only in the fact that, when they are 70, she and Tatsuhei will climb Narayama together.
Hardship, far from bringing people together in the famous harmony that Japanese society praises itself for, has forced them apart, infected them with a sense of mutual distrust and a them or us mentality. Orin feeds the senile old man cast out from his own unfeeling family, but she also urges him towards making a sacrifice of himself on Narayama, genuinely believing that both of their existences have become inappropriate, a greedy usurpation of time which rightfully now belongs to others. Kinoshita respects Orin for her stoicism and righteousness, but pities her for the cruelty of the world in which she lived and was so powerless to resist that it never occurred to her that she should. There is a painful sensitivity around those who willingly went to their deaths in service of something they believed to be right because their society said it must be so, never daring to consider the ways in which their society may be mistaken.
Heavily stylised and markedly experimental for a mainstream Shochiku melodrama of the late 1950s, Kinoshita’s The Ballad of Narayama is a heartrending tale of transience and inevitability, but it’s also one of the various ways a stringent society erodes the bonds between people. The intense love of Tatsuhei for his mother is destroyed by a terrible custom that no one is brave enough to defy, leaving the family rudderless and the village poorer for having been robbed not only of Orin’s wealth of experience but of her warmth and kindness. Kinoshita ends on an ambiguous image showing us the modern train station which stands on the former village of “Obasute”, demonstrating the passage of time and arrival of “modernity” but also that ancient customs are never quite as “ancient” as they seem.
Scene from near the end of the film (English subtitles)