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45 of 49 found the following review helpful:
Imamura's Humanism Aug 26, 2000
Shohei Imamura did something astonishing with his film 'The Ballad of Narayama.' Not only did he attempt to update a popular Japanese legend, he was creating an alternate version of the established classic, made by Keisuke Kinoshita [see Twenty Four Eyes] at the height of his powers. Reverence for the aged is a hallmark of Japanese society, so the ancient tradition of mountain people of exposing their no-longer productive relations on a mountaintop to die is very shocking to the Japanese. Kinoshita addressed the legend in a very stylized way, distancing the viewer from the action and thereby making the actions of these poor people somehow less terrible. Imamura, in stark contrast, emphasized the savagery of the traditional mountain society by parallelling it with the savagery of the natural world in which it, too, must survive. Imamura thereby makes the tradition seem somewhat inevitable and all the more moving because of its inexorability. These people aren't inhuman savages. They are survivors in a harsh environment. Imamura examines character so honestly that the people he depicts are revealed in their true humanity, and their actions are shown to be all the more tragic. A triumph for Imamura.
14 of 16 found the following review helpful:
A true masterpiece, Mar 06, 2008
*** This comment may contain spoilers ***
Based of the old and unusual Japanese legend, Shohei Imamura's "The Ballad of Narayama" won the Golden Palm in 1983 Cannes Festival. Set in the 19th century in a remote mountain village in the north of the country, it tells of the custom according to which when a person reached 70 years old they were taken to the top of Mount Narayama and left there to die.
When I saw "The Ballad of Narayama" back in the 80s, I did not know anything about it. There were no commercials; the film was not widely released. I think it was only two shows in the theater near our house in Moscow. All we knew that the film was a Cannes Festival winner. Our sons were little then, we did not have a babysitter, and we bought tickets to two different shows. My husband went first, and when he came back, I waited for him at the door, ready to leave. He looked quiet, serious and withdrawn when he returned home. I asked him how the movie was and he said to me to go and see it, and then we'd talk...After I came home, I did not want to talk, I did not know what to say, I was overwhelmed - with the unique style of film-making that I did not know even existed, with the images, but also with the very simplicity of the story and with the whole concept of surviving above everything else. Among the most devastating scenes for me was the old woman readily and happily accepting her turn to be taken to Narayma. The woman of perfect health and mind, the one who is perhaps the sanest in her family is so tired of this life that she on purpose knocks out one of her teeth just to seem older, more fragile, helpless, and ill and to be taken to the long -awaited rest. But before she is taken to Naryama, she will take care of her three grown sons' problems.
There are many unforgettable scenes in the film, both bleak and life-affirming. One stands out after all these years. There is a shining brilliant spring day, and every living creature in sight is engaged in love, young couple on the swing, birds, animals, and snakes - the whole nature celebrates life and longing and love. And soon after that, as the contrast, the horrifying scene where the family of thieves who had stolen some food from the neighbors are buried alive.
And there is the final part - the ascent to Narayama, the middle-aged son carries his mother to her final resting place, the last minutes between a son and his mother, and then, the snow in the end, white and pure, covering the earth and preparing it for the long sleep, and covering the old Orin, comforting her softly and preparing her for eternity...
12 of 15 found the following review helpful:
A Haunting Film Of Survival: Accepting One's Own Mortality! Feb 12, 2007
By Ernest Jagger
"The Ballad of Narayama," by director Shohei Imamaura, is a very depressing and haunting film. But that is not to say the film is not a great film. The film deals with the harsh realities of life in a 19th Japanese village. This village is small, and more importantly hunger-stricken. The community concerns of survival outweigh the morality of those who must accept their deaths when they reach the age of 70. The villagers in this 19th-century Japanese village must adhere to a very strict policy regarding population control if they are to survive. And what does this mean? Well for starters, the elderly are sent to die near a mountain called Narayama when they reach the age of 70.
This is not a happy film, for the most part, yet the viewer must understand that the very survival of the villagers depend upon survival in its most extreme form. Stealing food in this village means instant death. Truly a disturbing film---yet we must not pass judgment, because for these villagers, their very lives depend on draconian measures. Because starvation is a chronic threat to the villagers, draconian measures must be adhered to. And in this village death is an accepted fact of life. The first time I viewed this film I was very depressed by it, however, viewing it again recently made me understand that these villagers must adhere to strict policies if they are to survive. It is too easy to pass judgment on there villagers: they must do what they can in order to survive. However, there is also humor in this film. But the rather sad fate of those who reach the age of 70, and must accept their death, makes one forget about the humorous parts [at least to me].
The cruel realities of this village are not lost on the viewer. And many may have a difficult time with this film. But it is at least worth a watch. [I own the VHS]. Although it is not one of those films one takes out too often for repeated viewings, it is one that everyone should view at least once. The film centers on the life of one elderly woman named Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto). She is now in her seventieth year of life, and must therefore prepare to die. Her son Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata) has the responsibility of taking his mother up to the base of Narayama to die. This is truly an unforgettable film. This self-sacrifice for the survival of the village will leave a lasting and searing image in your mind, especially as you view Orin about to face her inevitable death. This is not a film one soon forgets after viewing. This film is highly recommended. [Stars: 4.5]
4 of 4 found the following review helpful:
A fascinating film, as brutal as it is beautiful May 06, 2010
By Thomas E. Davis
"The Ballad of Narayama" envisions a Hobbesian dystopia set in an impoverished village of feudal Japan. It's inhabitants don't simply live close to nature; they are a part of nature. In a lush valley landscape amid a lovely mountain backdrop, the villagers subsist much like animals, dependent on what little they can eke out of the land.
These farmers are filthy, malnourished, and vicious to one another. In the first half-hour of the film, we learn that they beat their kin, sell their children as chattel, throw their dead babies into fields as fertilizer and, when their elders reach the arbitrary age of 70, carry them to the mountains and leave them to die of exposure or starvation. This final pilgrimage is as much a sacrifice to the endemic hunger of the community as it is to the mountain gods, the gods who will supposedly reunite in the afterlife all those who perform the rituals they demand.
In this society, only eldest children have any value, while younger ones, their teeth rotting, their bodies covered in rags, are treated no better than slaves. They form a despised underclass that is alternately neglected, abused, and raped. Life for them is, quite literally, nasty, brutish, and short. Sex and death are ever-present, both in the human and the natural worlds; presented unblinkingly, these things are nothing to be surprised by, afraid of, embarrassed about, or sorry for. The peasants are impulsive and lusty, they sing songs that are bawdy and crude, they urinate and defecate openly. Mating, eating, excreting, dying: all are seen without shame as equally elemental and necessary functions.
Survival depends on dogged persistence in the face of adversity and on a ruthless willingness to discard anyone and anything, including sympathetic and filial emotions, that do not contribute to survival. Justice is swift and pitiless. A family that steals and hoards food is thrashed by a mob, their house is pillaged and, in short order, they are buried alive by a band of villagers. Not even children and pregnant women are afforded mercy.
While all of this sounds relentlessly miserable and depressing, "The Ballad of Narayama" is not without humor, since its characters are so human. They are petty and bumbling at one moment, proud and noble at another, and sometimes craven and courageous in the same breath. Much mirth arises from the stark contrast of these characteristics, and the extremes in the film make it impossible to forget that this is an over-the-top retelling of an ancient legend rather than a realistic or believable cultural portrait.
The story's central protagonists are an irresistably wry old woman, Orin, who faces death despite her rude good health and indomitable vitality, and her son Tatsuhei, whose duty it is to abandon her to the wilderness. Yet Orin doesn't fear her imminent demise as much as she does the prospect that her son will not find a wife or that he will not have the nerve to carry out his obligations and thereby shame her before the other villagers, as his father did. She sets about arranging things with single-minded efficiency and a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of joie de vivre.
The journey at the film's climax is predictably bleak, yet it has both a stark beauty and an unquestionable magnificence to it. The cinematography, as many reviewers have noted, is stunning throughout, as is the naturalistic acting of the cast. For an appreciation of a very Japanese esthetic, I highly recommend this cinematic masterpiece by Shohei Imamura, whose equally searing film "Black Rain," about a family that survives the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, is also recommended.
11 of 14 found the following review helpful:
Imamura's Inhumanism: heartless in the literal sense Jun 21, 2009
By Angry Mofo
You know it's a Shohei Imamura film when you see someone urinating in the first scene. Soon after, defecation makes an appearance too. Imamura glories in grotesquery like no other major Japanese director. Even at his nicest ("Warm Water Under a Red Bridge", my favourite film of his), he really likes bodily functions and awkward, unexpected acts of violence. Imamura's early film "The Pornographers" was about a sleazy, incompetent porn merchant who thoroughly fails in life. His later film "Dr. Akagi" expanded the scope, depicting pretty much all of pre-war Japanese society as bumbling and grotesque. "The Ballad Of Narayama" is set earlier, in the 19th century, but it also suggests that Imamura is unique among Japanese artists, in that he has very little love for Japanese culture and history.
The peasants in this film live in a harsh environment and have to struggle, but their poverty is not necessarily desperate. They have stores of food, and some of them have firearms and horses. They live to seventy, and often are in good health at that age. Their houses are old, but fairly large, with elaborate layers of straw-furnished lofts. But, they are always shown wearing filthy rags. The rags by themselves are unsurprising. For instance, Kurosawa's peasants in "Seven Samurai" are also ragged and poor, and prone to infighting. But, the last scene of "Seven Samurai" shows the peasant girls dressed in bright, pretty clothes for a rice-planting ceremony, which has a spirit of collective harmony. Imamura's film never shows any such event. Everyone always looks drab.
Continuing the contrast, Kurosawa's peasants could be cruel, like when the village elders gave away one guy's wife to a group of bandits. But that was a singular event, caused by an external threat, and traumatized the entire village for a long time. In "The Ballad Of Narayama," the peasants think nothing of killing unwanted children, or selling them into slavery. There are no bandits around; this is widely practiced and viewed as routine.
There is no compassion in Imamura's film. The values of the peasant society revolve around saving face. The husband of the old woman Orin deserted the family years ago (or tried to). Orin hates him, but not because he abandoned her. Her only grievance is that he embarrassed the family.
Family loyalty exists only in the form of subservience to the head of the household. Only the eldest son in a family is viewed as a human being. Younger sons ("yakko") are used as slaves. They are despised and pushed around by the entire village, and have no hope of ever getting married. This causes them to engage in deviant sexual practices, which are gleefully expounded upon by Imamura.
The peasants have a form of collective justice, where they all gather to accuse and judge possible criminals. However, it is clearly shown that this ritual can also serve as an excuse to loot somebody's house and take all his food. If someone is "convicted," his entire family is horribly killed, which evokes no remorse in anyone. Orin, the film's de facto protagonist, coldly deceives a young girl into going back to her parents' house, when it has already been condemned. The girl's husband is upset, but not for long; he finds another girl quickly.
Oh, and the head of a household eventually has to "go to the mountain," which means getting taken to a desolate wilderness and being abandoned there to starve to death. The only appearances of any religious beliefs in the film all revolve around this ritual.
This is a grim world. Imamura scrupulously chooses every image to reinforce its grimness. Scenes of dialogue are separated by shots of insects, reptiles and rodents -- mantis eating frog, mantis eating mantis, snake eating mouse. The sex scenes are followed by shots of rodents mating. The subtext is unsubtle -- life here is governed by reptilian, rodent instincts and force.
In another time, this film might have been a novel in the style of "critical realism." It has a lot in common with Zola's The Earth, which attacked French peasantry in the 19th century in much the same way as "The Ballad Of Narayama." Like the critical realists, Imamura uses earthy details that other film-makers demurely gloss over (Imamura's sex scenes are not graphic, but they're obscenely carnal in tone) to create a sense of authenticity. But, also like the critical realists, he might not be entirely reliable. The chilling scenes in the "graveyard" at the end of the film are visually striking; the content is horrifying, impossible to forget. But that's exactly the part that isn't real! It's a fanciful image, a bad dream.
But although that scene is very dark, its unearthly coldness gives it a certain harsh majesty. For that very reason, Imamura interrupts the scene's gloomy dignity with yet another grotesque image, involving the old man who doesn't want to go to the mountain. He purposely doesn't allow the film to become poetic.
"The Ballad Of Narayama" is not a "lyrical drama." Imamura's worldview in this film might be described as "inhumanism." The film viscerally participates in the lives of the peasants; it is alternately ice-cold and searingly carnal. But it leaves no room for sympathy. What little shines through is quickly drowned out by an all-powerful fatalism.
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