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43 of 47 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 He looked quiet, serious and withdrawn when he returned home.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...
13 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]
9 of 11 found the following review helpful:
despite bestiality and mass-murder, an uplifting tale. Sep 01, 1999
Life in this small Japanese town 100 years ago simply did not have enought resources for all. So the old had to make way for the young, and thieves would not be tolerated. At the age of 69 the elders were expected to go up to the mountain and die. It was shameful and selfish not to do so. This movie chronicles the struggle of an old woman to prepare her family for her upcoming death. She is worried about them, and even goes as far as knocking out her own teeth in an effort to convince them that she is near death and old, in a horrifyingly funny seen. A great film. A misunderstood masterpiece. I originally saw it at a double bill with dersu uzala, another great film about aging in asia.
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.
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