When Keisuke Kinoshita decided to dramatise The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考, Narayama Bushiko), adapted from a recent novel inspired by the ancient legend of “ubasute”, he recast it is as myth – a parabolic morality play adopting the trappings of kabuki to tell a timeless tale of transience and sacrifice. As much as Kinoshita praised the heroine’s kindness and altruistic sense of duty, he also questioned her failure to question the cruel and arbitrary social codes which defined her life, sacrificing her deep familial love for the cold austerity of religious reward. Shohei Imamura, slightly younger than Kinoshita, had also read the novel when it came out though he was not sufficiently progressed in his career to have considered adapting it for the screen. Unlike Kinoshita’s highly stylised approach, Imamura opts for his trademark sense of realism, exposing nature red in tooth and claw as he attempts to restore rural earthiness to the rarefied cinema screen.
Deep in the mountains, a small village does what it can to survive in harsh terrain. 69-year-old Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto) is as strong as they come but she is preparing to meet her end. In the villages of these parts, men and women of 70 are carried by their children to summit of Mount Narayama where they are left as a sacrifice to the god, praying for snow to hasten an otherwise long and drawn out death. Orin’s husband disappeared 30 years ago, the laughing stock of the village for his sentimental aversion to carrying his own mother up the mountain, and her son, Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata) seems equally reluctant to accept that Orin will making her own journey as soon as the next snows arrive.
Existence is indeed cruel. The custom of “obasute” or “throwing away” one’s old people, originated because of a lack of food. There not being enough sustenance to support a large population, the old sacrifice themselves in the name of the young. Life is cheap and of little consequence. Tatsuhei’s simple-minded younger brother, Risuke (Tonpei Hidari), notices the body of a newborn baby emerging from the melting snow to the edge of his rice paddy but the sight does not disturb or sadden him – he is annoyed that someone has “dumped” their “rubbish” on his land. Baby boys, oddly, are worthless – just another mouth to feed until it becomes strong enough to work, but baby girls are a boon because they can be sold. Orin herself sold her baby daughter in desperation following a bad harvest, and when the salt seller calls in unexpectedly Orin is at pains to tell him they’ve still not made a decision as to whether to sell her granddaughter who has been left without a mother following the death of Orin’s daughter-in-law in a freak accident.
She needn’t have worried however because the salt seller is bringing good news – a new wife for Tatsuhei, meaning Orin can make her final journey with an unburdened heart knowing that the household will be taken care of. Tamayan (Aki Takejo), a kind and cheerful woman much like Orin herself, fits right in despite the objections of Tatsuhei’s teenage son, Kesakichi (Seiji Kurasaki), who has got his girlfriend pregnant and wants to “marry” her – bringing not one but two extra mouths into his household. Orin loves him dearly, but all Kesakichi can do is make fun of his granny for still having all her teeth and resentfully enquire if she isn’t needed somewhere up a mountain sometime about now.
Kesakichi’s coldness and selfishness is contrasted with the goodness and warmth of Orin and her son. Hardship, far from bringing people together in their shared struggle, has made beasts of all. Imamura splices in frequent shots of animals copulating or feasting on each other – rats gnawing on the body of a snake giving way to a snake swallowing the body of a twitching grey mouse. Yet it is nature that will win in the end. Early on the village men chase a hare in the snow, Tatsuhei shooting it dead, only for an eagle to swoop down and make off with the prize. On the mountain, strewn with bones, a host of flapping crows emerges from a battered rib cage.
Catching a thief is no different to catching a hare. Convinced that the thief’s family is a curse on the village, the villagers determine that they must all be eliminated – the roots of a poisoned tree must be burned away. Breaking into the home, friends and former neighbours tie up and kidnap an entire family, burying them alive and then redistributing all their worldly goods in “recompense” for what they’d “lost”. The cycles of loss and redistribution continue, as Tatsuhei observes finding Orin’s belongings draped around other shoulders. Kesakichi, having lost one lover, quickly takes another forgetting the first while Tatsuhei struggles to come to terms with the loss of his mother and the knowledge that someday he too, and Kesakichi, and the sons of Kesakichi, will make this same journey to this same spot.
Kinoshita’s secondary concern had been with the cruelty of the custom and the mechanisms of social conformity which enforced it, but Imamura almost seems to be in agreement with the villagers, finding horror but also beauty in the sacrifice of Orin who accepts her fate with transcendent beatification and willingly sacrifices herself to the mountain gods. The world is cruel, and tender. A son’s acceptance of his mother’s sacrifice becomes the greatest expression of a love he must destroy by honouring.
Original trailer (no subtitles)