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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: The Ballad of Narayama (1958 and 1983)



The Ballad of Narayama (Also Blu-ray) (Four  Stars)

Japan: Keisuke Kinoshita, 1958 (Criterion Collection)

The 1958 film version of  The Ballad of Narayama is one of  the masterpieces of Keisuke Kinoshita, a great Japanese writer-director — peer and friend of  Kurosawa and Ichikawa —  who, these days, sometimes seems  as unfairly marginalized as his main character in Narayama: Orin, the elderly woman who will be left alone on the mountain Narayama by her children.

. Kinoshita’s film is a masterly blend of Japanese cinematic art and the stylization of kabuki theater, both put to the service of a devastatingly sad tale. Based on a novel by Shichiro Fukazawa, the movie is about a village of primitive mountain people cut off from the world, who live a harsh isolated life and have created a terrible ritual to deal with their omnipresent problems of hunger and poverty, Each year when a villager turns 70, he or she is taken up the slopes of the mountain, and left there alone to die of starvation and exposure or to be killed and devoured by predators. Perhaps to “validate” the societal legitimacy of what seems  a hideously cruel act, these discarded old people are taken to their deaths by their own children — close relatives who know that some day the same awful fate will befall them.

The Ballad of Narayama is obviously symbolic. It is a story about how people everywhere mistreat, neglect or abandon their elderly parents, and it comes only five years after Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 classic on the same general theme, Tokyo Story.  Only here the situation is far more extreme, the consequences more terrible, the presentation more mythic and theatrical. The story indeed, is introduced, kabuki-style, by a black-clad jojuri or kabuki theater narrator, who tells us that this will be a tale of obasute (or “the abandonment of old people”). We will see that word again later in the film.

The main character of the film, the soon-to-be-septuagenarian Orin, whose children will be forced to abandon her,  is played by one of the finest Japanese movie actresses of the twentieth century — Kinuyo Tanaka, the star of Kenji Mizoguchi‘s masterpieces, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff and Life of Oharu and Japan‘s first woman director (the 1953 Love Letter). Tanaka gave many remarkable performances, but few more memorable than this one. Tanaka plays Orin not as someone who rages rages against the dying of the light, as we might expect, but as a mother and grandmother who succumbs to this sanctioned atrocity uncomplainingly, unhesitatingly, and almost impatiently with her more skittish children. Her calm, pacific, radiant face — so effective a vision in Tanaka’s portrayals of long-suffering, exploited women like the tragic prostitute Oharu — here becomes shining, radiant, weathered but lovely, yet also the mask of an eventually terrifying stubbornness.

Orin, a perfect citizen of Narayama, still hale and hearty at nearly 70 (Tanaka was 50 when she played the part), stuns us with her selflessness even as some of her grandchildren infuriate us with their callousness: her grinning jesting grand son  Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa) and his indolent girlfriend Matsu (Keiko Ogasawara), who ridicule Orin for her healthy appetite and good teeth (“demon teeth” Kesakichi calls them) which deprive them, they say, of food. As the film progresses to its climax, Orin’s acquiescence to this kind of casual, cruelty becomes  both moving and maddening.

No one is more  wounded by Orin’s self-sacrifice than her grim-faced son Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi), who has the terrible task of escorting his mother up the mountain to her death — during the same year when he also brings to their home  his new wife Tama (Yuko Mochizuki), a kind, quiet girl who becomes Orin’s best friend and her pupil in household duties. Tatsuhei, we know, is racked by guilt for what he feels (and what his mother feels) he has to do. The scene where he carries Orin to her last resting place is both melancholy and horrifying — just as what happens to them is both “logical” and surprising. Along with Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Leo McCarey’s 1938 Hollywood-made Make Way For Tomorrow, Ballad of Narayama is one of the screen’s most powerful indictments of the mistreatment and/or neglect of elderly parents.

The stylization and classical artifice with which Kinoshita films Ballad of Narayama — the storyteller/jojuri, the mournful plucked-string kabuki music, the fiery colorful stage sets and painted backdrops of the dark mountains, the green trees and the vast sometimes red sky — tend to distance us from the story and its terror. But they also paradoxically make the characters come more alive. If the film were shot more realistically, more like Shohei Imamura‘s later 1983 version (see below), these people — the elderly, strangely heroic Orin , her haunted son and his placid, daughterly wife — might not move us as much.


Nor might the film’s incredible last sequence affect us as it does: a realistic back-and-white view (in an otherwise color film), filmed on a modern location, of  a train station with a sign that reads “Obasute” — the word that means “abandonment of old people.“ (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)


Extras: Trailer; teaser; Booklet With Philip Kemp essay.

The Ballad of Narayama (Four stars)

Japan; Shohei Imamura, 1983 (Animeigo)

Shohei  Imamura‘s great remake of another classic, Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1958 Ballad of Narayama, about the isolated mountain town that harshly leaves its elderly to die in the snow, because it can’t feed them. With Ken Ogata as Tatsuhei and Sumiko Sakamoto as Orin. An annihilating picture, this was the 1983 winner of the Japanese Academy Awards for Best Film and Actor; it also won the 1983 Palme d’Or of the Cannes Film Festival. More realistic and more savage than Kinoshita‘s Narayama, it’s a darker, more eerily troubling work, but, in its way, just as beautifully stylized and theatrical.  It affects you just as deeply.. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon