The Ballad of Narayama (1983) is a view into Japanese village life “about 100 years ago” that is stark in its barbarity and accessible because of the human story it tells. It is also director Shohei Imamura’s vision of Japan, at contrast with how Japan sees itself.
Japanese people traditionally see themselves as refined, sophisticated, subtle people. Imamura redefines his society (in this film and in others) as brutal places, strongly aligned to nature with many characters identified with animals. The village itself, a snake; the thieves, a silver fox that sneaks into the hen house; and the wild and exuberant thrustings of the village folk, with writhing snakes, humping frogs and nesting birds.
The film itself commences in the dead of winter, follows the life cycle of a year to the following winter as it mirrors the life cycle of the village.
Village life does not conform to Western standards with regards to the value of a life. It is all the more shocking to us because it does not. I imagine it is just as shocking to a Japanese audience too. Unwanted sons are callously thrown into the rice paddy. Unwanted daughters sold into prostitution via the wandering salt seller. Those who break the village laws are dealt with harshly : thieves of other’s food are buried alive. Life and death is just a step from each other that to be indifferent to the numbers around your table leads to your own destruction.
The main character in the story is Orin, a sixty-nine year old grandmother who knows her time is nearly up. Her health remains robust but she is determined that her son, Tatsuhei, honor his commitment as dutiful, faithful and loving son by carrying her up the mountain, to Narayama, to die on her 70th birthday.
The women in Imamura’s films are capable and robust women played by stocky, plump actresses (not the usual movie star type) that are both sexy (“juicy” – Imamura) and maternal. Orin fully intends to go out at a time of her choosing and in a manner that is pleasing to her.
The arduous journey of son carrying mother on his back up impossible slopes over an incredible difference hints at the love and respect of one for the other. Speaking is forbidden on the mountain and the last quarter of the film is virtually dialogue free. When they arrive on Narayama, they are met by an enclave of bones and skulls. The audience gasps as a crow worms its way out from under a ribcage.
The mother sets out her mat and waits her end. She waves her son off, impatient for him to be gone. He cannot move. He hugs his mother until she has had enough. It is not out of cruelty of indifference. It is the way things are. Better to go now than to wait another year or two or three and either die in the village (and not be buried on the mountain) or not be able to face death square in the face. As the son walks down the mountain, it starts to snow. Tatsuhei runs back to his mother to see if she is cold. She is not and waves him away again. The Spirit of Narayama has settled on Orin and is a great blessing to her.
My emotional highlight of this film was this scene, not just because of its moving theme, but because the whole auditorium, of 500+ people, were still. For at least 10 minutes they were spellbound and captured by what they were witnessing on screen. No-one was moving, or rustling, or coughing. Still. A very humbling experience to be in the midst of so many people hardly aware of the world around them as they watched the son’s grief and mother’s honor.