Ballad of Narayama AKA Narayama bushiko (1958)
R0 - United Kingdom - Tartan Video UK
Review written by and copyright: Jari Kovalainen (30th September 2007).
The Film

In post-war Japan, most of the local filmmakers were probably a bit shadowed by the great Akira Kurosawa - at least in the eyes of the Western audience. There were still other influential filmmakers, important to the whole art form. Directors like Yasujiro Ozu and Ishirô Honda are now highly regarded and there were also people like director/co-writer Keisuke Kinoshita. Kinoshita did Japan's first color film “Carmen Comes Home AKA Karumen kokyo ni kaeru (1951)” and later on those such as acclaimed “Twenty-Four Eyes AKA Nijushi no hitomi (1954)”. He also directed the first film adaptation (remake with the same name was done in 1983) based on the debut 1956 novel by author/musician Shichirô Fukazawa.

The style of “Ballad of Narayama AKA Narayama bushiko (1958)” follows the traditional Japanese Kabuki theatre, which means the narration is done by singing; the stripped music uses the old instruments and the visual look is partly theatrical also (the set and the lighting changes during the film like in the theatre stage). The story is based on the ancient legend of Obasute and is set in the remote mountain village in a valley (I guess somewhere around the 19th century). The 69-year old woman Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka - e.g. “Red Beard AKA Akahige (1965)”) is still a witty elder, in a good shape and has even all her teeth left (like her grandson mockingly sings; “33 devil´s teeth”). In this very poor village, she´s probably healthier than many younger inhabitants. Now Orin hears the news; her son Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi) has been a widow for a while now, after his wife fell from a cliff. Now he´ll have a new wife from another village, where the recent widower Tamayan (Yûko Mochizuki - e.g. “Kwaidan AKA Kaidan (1964)”) soon arrives to the family. For Tatsuhei this means some light to the gloomy and lonely days, but it also means another mouth to feed at the dinner table. Since Tatsuhei´s oldest son, the selfish Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa) also has a new wife, Matsu-yan (Keiko Ogasawara), and the food is very limited, Orin feels guilty. There´s a long autumn and winter ahead before the New Year arrives.

At the end of the year Orin reaches her 70th birthday. When that happens, she has to go to the “Summit of Narayama”, which basically means that she will go to the ancient mountain to die and to meet the gods. This is the traditional “Ubasuteyama” custom in the village and was apparently practiced in some parts of Japan a long time ago (now it´s mainly part of the folklore). It´s a harsh way to maintain the “balance” and food supply in the village. Her grandson Kesakichi is openly urging Orin to leave, since his wife Matsu-yan is pregnant and now eats for two people. The land taxes have also been high, so there´s not enough food for the winter. Orin is ashamed that she is in good health, but always willing to help the people next to her. While Orin knows the tradition and accepts it, her son Tatsuhei is quite disturbed at the idea of losing his mother. But that time is now near and the mountain is waiting.

“Ballad of Narayama” truly lives up to its name, since it’s a melancholy story of life and death and ultimately the “life cycle” that surrounds all of us - yesterday, today and tomorrow. It´s quite a sad story, but one with a lesson. All life is important and every generation adds something valuable to this world, from infants to the elders. They´re all equal and should be treaded that way. In the film, the villagers maintain that life cycle in a very drastic way; thieves are punished by taking all the food away, the widow women are outcast from the society - as are the elders that don´t accept their faith and don´t go to the mountain when “it´s time”. Year after year, life follows a similar pattern; people plant their harvest and the gods decide whether it´s going to be a good year (more food) or a bad one (less food). Only on one occasion each year is there a festival, when people can eat a bit more. Even when life is surrounded by hunger and poverty, Orin tries to help her son and his new wife, even the old man that is cast out from his own family. She also makes the dinner every night and contributes to the daily life of the family, fixing things and helping in the harvesting. It´s then ironic that she has to go to the mountain “to die”, when she´s more than useful to his family and an honest, good person. Everyone should face death in their own way (many don´t ever see it coming), so it´s a cruel and inhumane way to send people into the remote mountain and let them stay there to slowly fade away. Son Tatsuhei senses that going to the mountain is not right and he loves his mother, but the old tradition is too powerful and the rules of the village too strict. He´ll face his own demons now.

The visual style of the film is not fully “cinematic”, since the “Kabuki”-style makes the film look almost like a theatre play and most of the backgrounds are clearly matte paintings and shot in the studio. This is still actually a positive thing, since it underlines the fact that the story is based on the ancient legend and in a way should be told in this way. It gives a certain “dreamlike” quality to the film, but not burying the “message” or the lessons that the story includes (when you dig more deeply). “Ballad of Narayama” is a powerful study of the morals and generally about the life itself, but it´s also a fable, a poem or a ballad that people might have told in the campfires or sang quietly to their relatives. This combination makes it a unique experience and eventually also highly recommended.

Video

The film is presented in Anamorphic 2.35:1. The transfer is quite clean and decent looking, but is rather soft and grainy, along with some murkiness in some scenes. Darker scenes also reveal some compression issues. While the transfer is slightly faded, it´s still quite enjoyable and in the end this is almost a 50 year old film. The original “Shochiku Grandscope”-look is still maintained, even when the colours are probably not fully in their original glory. The “dual layer” disc is “R0” (back cover states “R2”) encoded and has 16 chapters. The film runs 93:50 minutes (PAL).

Audio

Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono is the only audio choice and optional English subtitles are included. Like the visuals, the audio is a bit rough with some hiss and a few “pops”, but the dialogue still stays clear and the music pleasant (or should I say haunting).

Extras

Japanese theatrical trailer (2:17 minutes, with optional English subtitles) is the only extra and 4-page booklet includes liner notes by film historian Jasper Sharp.

Overall

“Ballad of Narayama” is a true Japanese classic, which is not to be missed if you love films and are open-minded for the different cinematic experiences. The transfer has its flaws and there´re no real extras, but eventually the DVD presentation is quite decent. It also seems to be the only English friendly release of the film on DVD so far.

For more info, please visit the homepage of Tartan Video (UK).

The Film: Video: Audio: Extras: Overall:

 


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