i just finished watching this and figured i better do this straight away while it was all in my head straight. The short version of the review is that this is most certainly a film worth watching it is touching and at times brutal, but i would hope that more people will view the film as its accessibility via a fantastic Criterion release would make it rather easy.
This really shouldn’t go under Samurai Cinema since there isn’t a single Samurai in sight, but i’m just going to throw it in with the rest of them for spite.
Also i have decided to input “The Story” entries from my book reviews into those of my films as it may help to know what the story is about before i start rambling on and on about it…
“…set in a remote mountain village where food is scarce and tradition dictates that citizens who have reached their seventieth year must be carried to the summit of Mount Narayama and left there to die. The sacrificial elder at the center of the tale is Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka), a dignified and dutiful woman who spends her dwindling days securing the happiness of her loyal widowed son with a respectable new wife…”
Since the plot of the film is no less complicated than the blurb on the back of the DVD box it is up to the director and actors to supply the lions share of the interest in the proceedings. To that i say it is a complete success, Kinuyo Tanaka plays the ageing Orin with a dignity and sweetness that is so grandmotherly that it is impossible not to love her as her son does, which makes her determination to make the voyage to her doom all the more saddening and her selflessness to her son and family and strict adherence to the village’s traditions all the more tragic.
It’s a prime example of how when a director and actor work together to make you like a character you only really need to give a slight push in one direction or another to generate a response, one sequence when Orin smashes her teeth to stop teasing of her vile grandson and the village (she has almost a full set of teeth and at her age the villagers just assume she is eating more than her fair share) is not shown in any real detail but the scene is still absolutely heart wrenching.
The also film possess a wonderful and colourful aesthetic, as throughout it all it is presented the way one would watch a play unfold on the stage, this coupled with a narrator’s singing over sparse instruments lends the film a delightful theatrical aesthetic that is only equalled by Kwaidan’s portrayal of the Battle of Dan-no-ura. Despite the film’s theatrical presentation the director and cinematographer don’t forget to use the camera as an advantage to theatre to emphasize or slowly reveal plot and character.
A great deal of time is spent making the time and place of this story as real as it can be (despite the obvious phoniness of the sets themselves) and watching this film i can really understand that life in a medieval Japanese village was a constant struggle for survival. Death was the only certainty in those times as it could either come from a simple fall, to starvation, over taxation, or just living too long. However despite all of this suffering and pain these are still people, they laugh and cry and feel love the same as we do now, this is what The Last Samurai should have shown not just montages of people doing stuff but scenes of people living in this time and place.
it is genuinely hard for me to come up with anything negative to say about The Ballad of Narayama. But if i am to pick out one thing it’s that there is just barely enough plot to stretch out for 89 minutes. But Keisuke Kinoshita is well aware of this and never pads out the running length with filler or other distractions.
Also while the ending is not a disappointment i was hoping for a little bit more flair from it, like how Kurosawa always manages to sum up his films themes with a meticulously staged and executed final shot. Although what we have here is no less demanding of contemplation from the audience i just wanted a bit more room for it to breath instead of the sudden transition to the present that it has instead.
The Ballad of Narayama like any piece of great art has a lot to say about us, it makes statements about the dangers of selfishness, and selflessness, the weight of societal responsibilities, the treatment of our elderly, the passing of time, and above all that life despite its harshness is a beautiful thing and its coming and going is as natural a part of living as the seasons changing.
**** 1/2 out of Five
i am aware of a remake having been made in 1983 and my research into it has all indications that it puts much more emphasis into the brutality of living in a time and place where starvation is a very real threat straight to the top of its concerns. Considering that despite this film’s overall lighter tone the harshness of living is still not hidden from view in the least, i can imagine that the remake is absolutely harrowing.
Well i guess that’s another one added to my “to watch list”…