The Ballad of Narayama

The Ballad of Narayama, a 1958 film by Keisuke Kinoshita, a Shochiku studio stablemate of Ozu and Mizoguchi, opens with an unconventional gambit for a Japanese melodrama from the 1950s. A masked M.C. knocking two blocks of wood together matter-of-factly announces the film’s title and offers a brief abstract of its content. The fabric behind him proves to be a curtain, drawn aside after the credits are displayed–Narayama is staged as theatre, filmed by a movie camera. The voiceover narration, accompanied by music plucked on a shamisen, draws on traditional Japanese styles of drama. The sets are lavishly dressed with flowers, trees, and even gently burbling brooks. And Kinoshita’s repeated strategy of changing sets in full view of the camera by pushing platforms to the side, casting a shadow across a character, or suddenly dropping a curtain or background to reveal a new scene behind, is borrowed from the kabuki tradition.


I suppose Kinoshita indulges in artifice partly because the film’s subject matter is simply too much to bear straight up. The Ballad of Narayama is about a purported tradition of abandoning the elderly, consigning them to death by exposure or starvation. The Japanese have a word for this (Ubasute), and although the historical basis is unclear, the recurring story–an eldest son hauls his mother to a mountain summit and leaves her there to die, alone–has survived through centuries of folklore. (The early version most often cited by scholars is a 15th-century Noh play by Zeami, and ubasute is apparently mentioned in the 12th-century Konjaku Monogatari.) It’s a powerful story for obvious reasons having to do with the relationship children have to their aging parents, like the increased psychological and financial pressures that may come to bear as a mother or father nears death. It may be a powerful Japanese story for somewhat less apparent reasons, including more culturally specific ideas about shame and honour. With the advancement of old age comes not just the slow encroachment of decrepitude and a general decline in independence, but also a loss of privacy that can be devastating.

Certainly The Ballad of Narayama‘s main character, Orin, a 69-year-old woman living in poverty with her family, has a bellyful of shame. Played by the great actress (and director!) Kinuyo Tanaka, Orin is a weak yet genuinely cheery woman hunched over from age and possessed of crippling self-awareness. She has maintained all her original teeth despite her advancing years, but to Orin those teeth are a source of discomfort. She believes they suggest gluttony–a grandmother who sits around the house, ravenously slurping down big meals and leaving her family with less. Her sense of the matter is reinforced by the other villagers, who sing out in mocking tones about her “demon teeth”–an act of breathtaking cruelty given Orin’s position. In her village, men and women who reach their seventieth year are given what is considered by local cultural norms a good death: Taken to the top of nearby Narayama, they meet their demise with the knowledge that they will no longer be a burden on their families. With that end looming, self-consciousness about one’s teeth may seem like small potatoes, but Orin takes this stuff quite seriously. In one of the film’s more viscerally wrenching moments, she dashes her face against the edge of a millstone, knocking those telltale chompers out for good.

Within Orin’s family, there are factions. Her widowed son, Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi), loves her very much and is distressed at the idea of her journey to the mountaintop. The same goes for Tatsuhei’s new wife, Tamayan (Yuko Mochizuki), whom Orin welcomes into the family selflessly, with offerings of precious food. Her grandson Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa), by contrast, can’t wait for the old woman to drop dead. His knocked-up girlfriend, you see, is eating for two, and the couple isn’t shy about reminding Orin that she’s old and in the way. A neighbour man, Mata, refuses to take the journey; he is eventually bound and carried up the mountain by force. Orin, on the other hand, is placid about the endeavour. Ironically, it falls upon her to comfort Tatsuhei about their trip to Narayama rather than the other way around.

Orin’s cool acceptance of her fate is crucial to the film’s general mood, which wraps layers of beauty and stoicism around a core of metaphysical terror. The Ballad of Narayama is a lushly-produced period piece that highlights the skills of the Shochiku studio craftspeople with a moving camera that tracks every which way through the complex, busy sets, showcasing the mammoth undertaking it must have been to build each one. (Even the wind can be seen blowing through these cinematic spaces.) And it’s finely performed, with Tanaka and the rest of the troupe precisely locating their characters across an emotional spectrum ranging from disconsolation to indifference. Kinoshita offers lush visual cues, too–some scenes are bathed entirely in red or green light. But eventually, most conventional narrative trappings fall away, and we are left with the story of a man with a wooden chair strapped to his back, in which sits his elderly mother, her small, silent gestures pushing him ever forwards, urging him up Narayama.

It’s in the final act, which chronicles that slow ascent, that The Ballad of Narayama takes on a genuinely otherworldly tone. I hate to say too much about it; the film casts a spell here, in its most desolate moments, as the rich, saturated colours of the first hour give way to more monochromatic tones and the formerly busy screen space is mostly emptied out. I’ll note that the generally loose, mournful musical score (composer Chûji Kinoshita is the director’s brother) takes on, in its increasing urgency, a fiercely contemporary edge. Suddenly, it sounds almost like rock music, with a driving 4/4 beat underneath staccato plucking in a higher register. More crucially, Kinoshita brings his vision of the human tragedy–the progression of lives from carefree youth into an adulthood burdened by poverty, guilt, responsibility, you name it–into focus. There’s a single moment where the intertwined story threads of the mother’s journey and the son’s briefly become one, as he turns to leave her behind and their two bodies briefly assume the same weary position in the frame. These rhyming figures at Narayama’s summit suggest a sorrowful, lifelong choreography–how we children and parents, locked on a trajectory to oblivion with only a generation of distance between us, move in sympathy, even at the end of the line.

THE BLU-RAY DISC

Criterion’s budget Blu-ray of The Ballad of Narayama features no extras at all, save two different trailers (one identified as a teaser). A booklet essay by film critic Philip Kemp is left to do the heavy lifting of putting the picture in context and succeeds pretty well. The disc is, nonetheless, a welcome addition to the company’s expansive line-up of Japanese cinema, bringing a new 2K digital master produced by Shochiku and Japanese post giant Imagica to the table. According to the liner notes, a 35mm wet-gate interpositive was printed from the damaged camera negative and scanned at 4K, and then digital restoration work was done at 2K resolution. Although Criterion pegs the new transfer at 2.35:1, it actually measures closer to 2.4:1 (not a big deal, as the latter aspect is closer to the projection aperture for a ‘scope print). The results are impressive. The opening title sequence is quite grainy, but it’s also one long optical effect. When the movie proper begins, that harsher layer of grain falls away, replaced by a more velvety shimmer that seems fairly appropriate to the film’s age.

In fact, it’s possible that Criterion’s Blu looks too good. You can clearly see seams, wrinkles, and other tell-tale imperfections in the painted backdrops of the sets that were probably invisible in theaters, obscured by the extra grain added in the striking of theatrical prints. Despite this, the image isn’t especially sharp as HD goes, but slightly soft edges are endemic to anamorphic lenses of the period—indeed, that characteristic is a big part of what gives these films their apparent lushness, and the look is faithfully reproduced here. I detected no evidence of edge-sharpening or aggressive de-noising. While the monaural audio, rendered as an uncompressed PCM track mastered at 24 bits, isn’t particularly dynamic, it is clean and undistorted across the frequency range. It was probably tempting to compress this release to fit on a BD-25, but Criterion has gone the distance with a 26.9 GB transfer that just tips the scales into BD-50 territory.

Unfortunately, there is one short passage beginning at 36:03 and lasting until 36:25 where frames have been double-printed so that the motion on screen appears jittery as the camera tracks past a copse of trees with bright red autumn leaves. The effect reminded some reviewers of what happens when a computer’s buffer is momentarily overwhelmed by a rush of video at a high data rate, though examining the footage frame-by-frame reveals that every other film frame does seem to be reproduced exactly twice, replacing alternate frames of the original footage. I have no idea what sort of problems with the source material would manifest themselves in this fashion; alerted to the defect by other writers, Criterion maintains that it’s an artifact of the original Shochiku restoration as opposed to anything introduced in the encoding process for home video. I believe them, but I’d love to know more about the circumstances that led to the issue in the first place, and whether it’s a legit restoration tactic in the face of damaged footage or a glitch somewhere in the process that somehow went unnoticed until the new masters were created. Though it’s a relatively minor glitch in the grand scheme, it mars an otherwise top-drawer release.

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