THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA (1983)
Updated: Feb 8
The most brutal ballad in the history of Japanese cinema!
Director: Shôhei Imamura
Cast: Ken Ogata, Sumiko Sakamoto, Tonpei Hidari, Aki Takeyô, Shôichi Ozawa
Related films: Pigs and Battleships, Vengeance is Mine, The Eel, Tokyo Story
It is not easy to decipher the tone that carries The Ballad of Narayama so well. On the one hand, the story is down to earth and entertaining. On the other, the narrative is built on a sturdy foundation of social commentary and traditional Japanese aesthetics.
One could argue that Imamura succeeded in uniting the best of two worlds: Like Kurosawa before him, he applied a Hollywood-inspired sense of entertainment. At the same time, he seemed to momentarily look back at archetypical Japanese filmmakers like Kenji Mizoguchi and Kinugasa Teinosuke.
The Ballad of Narayama was directed by Shôhei Imamura in 1983. It won the Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Festival and was labeled a central piece of Japanese film history. The movie is based on the novel Narayama Bushikô (1956) by the Japanese author Shichirô Fukazawa.
Not only did The Ballad of Narayama do well overseas, it was well received in Japan and won three Japanese Academy Awards. Before Imamura’s adaptation, director Keisuke Kinoshita already made the book into film in 1958.
Before The Ballad of Narayama, Imamura’s films were known for their stark realism. This echoed his opposition to the filmmaking of Yasujirô Ozu. He learned from Ozu when he worked as a second assistant director on Tokyo Story. Seeing the master at work, Imamura realized that he found Ozu’s directing too rigid and stylized for his taste.
An unexpected mega-hit
Not even Imamura aficionados could have foreseen that he would come up with a masterpiece of this caliber. He was known for gritty atmospheres and portraits of dubious characters from the lower classes of Japanese society.
Imamura spent much of his youth on the unruly streets of post-war Japan. There he consorted with all kinds of hoodlums, gangsters, pimps and prostitutes.
Imamura rose to fame with character studies of bandits and murderers, such as Pigs and Battleships (1961), Intentions of Murder (1964), The Pornographers (1966) and Vengeance is Mine (1979).
The Ballad of Narayama also tackled issues of poverty and morality, but it did so in a more epic manner than Imamura ever displayed before. As such, it became a testament to his capability as a filmmaker. It demonstrated willingness to explore and develop his own craft. The Ballad of Narayama was the product of a master director in the making.
The story of Mount Narayama
The lyrics for The Ballad of Narayama are far from as serene as the title indicates. The topic of carrying your elders into the wild to die for the benefit of the local community, is just as well suited for death metal as for Japanese medieval serenades.
Be that as it may, this particular ballad concerns a certain village, in which the custom is to leave the elders at a mountaintop to die. This custom is called «ubasute» in Japanese. It is said to be a ritual of legend, rather than a common practice that ever existed in Japan.
In the village at the foot of Mount Narayama your lease on life runs out when you turn 70 years old. The elders all know that their days are numbered. They are all walked out of town – some more willingly than others – as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
It is the circle of life. The elders make way for the newborns, and ease the hardship for their families by keeping the number of mouths to feed at a bare minimum. They have led good, productive lives. Should they fall ill, the burden might leave their loved ones vulnerable.
Orin is 69 years old and healthy for her age. One day, she witnesses the ordeal a neighbor has to go through, when his 70-year old father is less than enthusiastic about taking a nice mountain hike. Then and there she decides to confront her upcoming demise head-on.
However, her son has other ideas. He does not want to take his healthy mother to the mountain. So, in order to not burden her community, Orin starts to take measures to ensure that her well-being declines in time for her upcoming day of doom.
Setting the tone
The time period is vaguely set between 1850 and 1860. Given the somewhat murky history of senicide (sacrificing old folks for pragmatic reasons) in Japan, Imamura’s purposeful confusing of time, place and historical consistency seems fitting.
The location for filming was an actual abandoned village to which the film crew had to hike for one and a half hours to find. The idea was to capture the change of seasons in one full year, with no artificial adjustment of the images.
In other words, the film crew got to know the area well, and probably saved a lot on canceled gym memberships during the «year of nonstop hiking». Incidentally, this was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the hardship the crew and actors had to deal with.
For instance, Ken Ogata – who played as Orin’s son – suffered frostbite from hiking the mountain in his period costume. Even more alarming, the 47-year-old actress who played Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto) had four front teeth temporarily removed for some scenes.
Between the lines
The inescapable bond between humans and nature is a central theme in The Ballad of Narayama. The villagers are one with the surrounding, majestic landscape. They forage, hunt and mate just like the animals they live amongst.
The course of nature is underlined by vignettes of frogs, insects, birds and snakes, as they keep their species going alongside their neighboring humans. Some sexual scenes are quite graphic, but the crosscuts between human and animal mating rituals take some of the edge off.
At first, the sexual content appears to confirm the western notion of liberal sexuality in Japan. Perhaps more so, strict village rules when it comes to sexuality seems to point to a society of great opposites.
Imamura himself grew up in a time when Japan reshaped itself into a country of contrast. Black markets flourished in the postwar era. They were rife with unsavory characters for the eighteen-year-old Imamura to draw all kinds of inspirations from.
To this day, huge contrasts are a defining feature of Japanese society. High tech innovation and ancient traditions are equally revered. Obedience and hard work are met with similar dedication to hobbies and hard drinking.
Strict rules and hierarchies rule the outer echelons of society, which is to say, the publicly endorsed and internationally projected images. In strong contrast, individuality is celebrated to the max in the private sphere, which has resulted in all sorts of subcultural movements, intense fandom, and outlandish fashion trends.
If anything seems to unite the Japanese plethora of opposites, it’s the joy and horror of extreme capitalism. One thing you can always count on in Japan is the plenitude of department stores, restaurants, bars, shops, and an economy that still runs on hard cash.
Imamura described The Ballad of Narayama as a manifesto against present-day Japanese society. The primitive village life seemed more real to him than the constant chase for money and abundance. The state of the Japanese society in the 80s was nothing more than an illusion to him.
Producing the ballad
Opposites are not only found between the lines of The Ballad of Narayama, it was central to the film production on most levels. The mix of Hollywood-inspired camera techniques and traditional Japanese filmmaking for instance, was a good fit for Imamura's film style.
Hand held camera, fast-paced cutting and rapid panning were not as prevalent in Japanese films as in American cinema at the time. These techniques complimented Imamura's focus on realism greatly. They made for a dynamic film experience when juxtaposed with typically Japanese long takes and static camera shots.
Whether Imamura paid attention to this juxtaposition of film styles, is hard to determine. He was far from as blatantly lifting ideas from Hollywood cinema as Kurosawa. That being said, the parallels to American filmmaking were obvious nonetheless.
It should be noted that Imamura was a leading director in the so-called «Japanese new wave cinema». This movement explicitly criticized the conventions of traditional Japanese filmmaking. Instead, new wave films focused on experimentation and social commentary.
The ideas of the Japanese new wave coincided with Imamura’s notion about living in a society that felt unreal to him. Likewise, he found Ozu’s filmmaking to be unnatural, yet he didn’t fully distance himself from the Japanese film tendencies of old.
Neither Kurosawa nor Imamura strayed too far off the beaten path of traditional Japanese filmmaking. Instead, they enriched it with their own sensibilities and their own set of sources for inspiration. This approach led them both to come up with uniquely personal film styles, which made an everlasting impact on their craft in Japan.
Final verdict for The Ballad of Narayama
Whether The Ballad of Narayama became artful, genre defying or singular in its style seems beside the point. Imamura set forth to make a realistic representation of a mystical Japanese ritual; a ritual that made more sense to him than the society he was living in at the time.
The result was a bridging of social commentary and entertainment, the likes of which the world had never seen before. If this does not deserve the label of a Japanese classic, I don’t know what does.
Blueprint Review: The Ballad of Narayama
The Guardian: All you need is sex
The Japan Times: A lifetime in search of Japan's true self
ReelViews: Ballad of Narayama, The (Japan, 1958)
Senses of Cinema: Imamura, Shôhei
The Telegraph: Shôhei Imamura