If you’re looking for withering portraits of human abjection and total societal collapse (and who isn’t?), you might as well start your search with Japanese films of the 1950s. Start with “Sansho the Bailiff” (1954), set in an 11th century feudal Japan where the opening credits inform us that “mankind had not yet awakened as human beings.” The credits aren’t kidding, either. Or how about “Fires on the Plain” (1959), where tubercular Japanese soldiers are rewarding for their service by getting to choose between suicide or winding up as monkey meat (think Soylent Green)?
Add “The Ballad of Narayama” (1958) to the pantheon. The fun starts in a 19th century Japanese village huddled in the shadow of the titular mountain. Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) is one of the village elders, a grandmother so beloved that the children of the village sing songs about her. Unfortunately, those songs are all celebrations of her impending death. Orin is about to turn seventy and that means it’s time for her to clear out. Right after the new year her son Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi) will carry her piggyback to the mountaintop and leave her to die from exposure, both as a sacrifice to the gods and as a service to society. She has no future, so why should she be allowed to consume the limited resources of the present?
The film is based on a novel by Shichiro Fukazawa which is inspired by the ancient practice of ubasute, which I believe translates as “dump Granny in the snow”. From my sketchy research, I gather there’s no evidence that the practice of abandoning inconvenient elders ever really existed, but it has been a common feature in Japanese folklore. The theme may also have had a special resonance for post-war viewers questioning the value of adherence to authority and tradition.
Director Keisuke Kinoshita adopts the trappings of kabuki theater for his adaptation, and the result is often startling. The characters inhabit proudly artificial sets where backdrops are pulled away and replaced ,and the world is composed of puddles of moody spot lighting that sometimes plunge the protagonists into darkness or bathes them in red filters. It is filmed theater, yes, but far more dynamic than such a description might indicate, and the extreme, self-conscious artifice only heightens the intensity of raw emotion at the core of the story. The constant music of twangy samisen (a Japanese version of a banjo) and a singing narrator who restates the action further enhances the pathos.
Kinoshita can make you boil with rage at the sight of the smug grandson and his lazy sow of a girlfriend as they browbeat poor Orin. Why don’t you just do it now, Grandmother? Why wait for the new year? We’ll all be so much happier when you’re dead! But the grandson is merely a stand-in for the other villagers and, presumably, for the rest of a callous society that sees no pragmatic value in the wisdom and grace of old age and has no sympathy for the weak. Orin buys in completely, even to the point where she feels ashamed that she still has all her “demon” teeth, a sign of greed for an old, useless woman who will only use them to eat food that could be feeding younger, more productive mouths.
Not everyone has been corrupted by tradition. Orin is the compassionate moral compass of the film, and her blood pulses through the veins of her son, who resists conformity as best he can. This isn’t a movie with a happy ending, and whatever victory he achieves will be qualified. tatsuhei must do his duty, but he will be badly scarred by the act, proving that he is alive and decent. That’s something, at least. And in a world defined by physical and moral privation, perhaps it’s everything.
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. According to the Criterion booklet: “The new digital master was produced from the 2011 restoration done by Shochiku studios and Imagica. For the restoration, a scan was created in 4K resolution on an Imagica IMAGER scanner from a new 35 mm interpositive wetgate printed from the original camera negative; the original negative could not be scanned directly due to excessive damage.”
I don’t know if the negative damage is responsible for the strange effect at the start of Chapter 7, a 20-second pan of autumn leaves that looks as if it’s shot in jittery slow-motion until the film lurches forward at normal speed again. That’s the only noteworthy blemish in an otherwise solid if not superior transfer. The film doesn’t have much of a grainy look, but the image detail is sharp and the reds and greens are quite vibrant.
The film is presented with a linear PCM Mono soundtrack. The music and sung narration is richly preserved, and the dialogue is clearly mixed as far as I can tell. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.
The only extras on this bare-bones disc are a Trailer (3 min.) and a Teaser (2 min.)
The 20-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic and film historian Philip Kemp.
“The Ballad of Narayama” was remade in 1983 by Shohei Imamura. That Palme d’Or winner is probably more familiar to audiences than Kinoshita’s much less graphic version. I saw the Imamura too long ago to make a useful comparison. I can only say that this 1958 version is deeply affective and flat-out devastating. It’s a shame Criterion did not include any meaningful extras, but don’t overlook this gem.