Life and Death
There are some classic images in Japanese film, scenes that stick with you long after the film is over. Takakura Ken, tattooed and brandishing his sword, about to take vengeance for his master. A hill with five mounds, each with a sword sticking from the top. This scene of Ogata Ken carrying his mother on his back, climbing up the mountain where he will leave her to die, has got to be among them. It is a powerful and moving image.
“The Ballad of Narayama” (“Narayama Bushiko”) is a re-make of the 1958 film of the same name, which is in turn an adaptation of two books by Fukuzawa Shichiro, “The Ballad of Narayama” and “The Men of Tohoku”, which were in turn based on an old folk legend called “The Mountain where Old People were Abandoned” from the 11th Century book Konjaku Monogatari. This is not true history, and there is no evidence that such a tradition ever existed outside of folktales. Life in the mountains was undeniably harsh, but not to the extent that human beings were abandoned like so much garbage.
A film does not have to be historically accurate, however, to have impact. Under the skilled hand of director Imamura Shohei, the story becomes an allegory for the physicality of human life, for the ephemeral nature of being alive. Characters reduced to their most primal aspects of survival do little more than gather food, have sex when they can, making new people to repeat the cycle, then grow old and become a burden with the younger generation silently hoping they would die off and clear some room. I was struck by how little human society has changed over the years, and by how much of my life I spend doing those very same things, just following my instincts and obeying my biological imperative.
“The Ballad of Narayama” is all about the biological imperative, and the conflict involved when animals are allowed to think and feel. Ogata Ken (Vengeance Is Mine) plays Tatsuhei, a strong and gruff man who is the leader of his family. He is a violent and primal character, but even this is mostly bluster. Inside, he is torn up over the ritual of carrying his beloved mother up the mountain to her death. But she will not be shamed, and demands that her son complete his task with dignity. All of the needs of survival and the pressures of survival drive him towards this, but he lacks the strength of will to stand against it.
While a brilliant film, it is not without its faults. Imamura intercuts the film with images of animals procreating, birthing and dieing, but sometimes the metaphor is too heavy handed. We get it, OK? Tone it down a little. Also, during the most dramatic part of the film, the climb up the mountain, the music is a synthesized bass line that does not suit the mood at all. For such a powerful and primal scene, electronic music was not the best choice.
These are minor faults though, and completely overshadowed by the rest of the film. An amazing movie by an amazing director.