The Ballad of Narayama
Another "Ballad" in the title, another great movie by the Criterion Collection. I wasn't expecting that much from The Ballad of Narayama based on the description but it blew me away. It's easily one of the most exciting experiments in film I've seen but it's also one of the most touching stories I've seen. For those of you keeping track, my list of favorite -I would love to see these again and again- Criterion Movies is:
AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE
THE BAD SLEEP WELL
THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA
The story is about the ancient Japanese practice of abandoning old people to die on mountains as a way to appease the gods. There's some question whether this was ever an actual practice or just a myth that grew up. Regardless The Ballad of Narayama uses this as the basis for a simple but powerful story. In an ancient village, an old woman has reached the age of 70, the age at which people are sent to the mountain to die. But her son truly loves his mother and is deeply conflicted about abandoning her.
The story is very powerful but it's not even the most striking feature of the movie. Except for the final scenes, the entire movie was shot on a sound stage. That's not unusual for 1958 but the film draws attention to the fact. The movie is presented almost as a kabuki drama complete with a singing narrator. Often there are very theatrical scene changes. The background screen will suddenly fall revealing a new set that the camera pushes into. Despite this very artificial appearance the acting is totally realistic. The viewer is sucked in to the plight of loving son who is asked to carry his mother to side of a mountain and then leave her there. The thought reduces this man to tears.
At first this movie wasn't appreciated for what it is. As noted, sound stage sets weren't that unusual in 1958. There was Forbidden Planet and Brigadoon which were also shot on sound stages. But now the picture can be appreciated for what it is, a bold attempt to combine the flamboyance of kabuki with raw human emotion.
The movie was by Keisuke Kinoshita who directed The Army and Apostasy. This is the movie that convinced me Kinoshita was a true master. This film is so ambitious and it works beautifully. Any questions I had about his poitn of view were wiped out with this picture. Here tradition is the true enemy. The man doesn't want to abandon his mother but society won't let make any other choice. There's even a scene that feels like J Horror. The old woman is embarrassed that she still has a full set of teeth at 70. So she knocks them out. The sequence is played as pure horror and she even shocks the other villagers. The final shots, the only ones not done on a sound stage, are of modern Japan. The place where old people were sent to die is now a ski resort. It's a bitter, final jab at the dead traditions. I can't help but feel that the man who created The Army felt deeply disappointed in his country's leaders after the war.
The film is a visual feast. There are so many incredible shots. The one haunting image is of the old woman sitting on the mountain as the snows slowly cover her. Her son yells his final goodbye as she sadly waves him away.
Obviously this would be a tricky film to use as a template but it would great for directors and writers to look at this film and use it as inspiration. This is a very sad story but the film it inspired is alive and exciting.