In Kabuki style, the film tells the story of a remote mountain village where the scarcity of food leads to a voluntary but socially-enforced policy in which relatives carry 70-year-old family members up Narayama mountain to die. Granny Orin is approaching 70, content to embrace her fate. Her widowed son Tatsuhei cannot bear losing his mother, even as she arranges his marriage to a widow his age. Her grandson Kesa, whose girlfriend is pregnant, is selfishly happy to see Orin die. Around them, a family of thieves are dealt with severely, and an old man, past 70, whose son has cast him out, scrounges for food. Will Orin’s loving and accepting spirit teach and ennoble her family?
On “The Ballad of Narayama”
Keisuke Kinoshita made his mark on the golden age of postwar Japanese cinema with a number of experimental works. Karumen Kokyo ni Kaeru (Carmen Comes Home, 1951) was the first full-length feature all in color. Nogiku, no Gotoki Kimi Nariki (You Were Like a Wild Chrysanthemum, 1955) made use of masks to give a traditional flavor to man’s recollection of his youth. Fuefukigawa (Fuefuki River, 1960) brought medieval narrative scroll effects to a chronicle of peasant family life in sixteenth-century Japan. In this last, Kinoshita made bold use of “eerie green, lavender and sepia color patterns, and cartouches with the names of the famous battle scenes”
Such daring experiments were characteristic of a director known as a cameraman as well. Yet Kinoshita’s most luxurious and ingenious stylistics took it cues from the traditional stage of the Kabuki and Bunraku theaters for his Narayamabushi-ko (The Ballad of Narayama, 1958). Using a wide screen and taking particular care with color, spotlighting, curtains and sets, he recreated the atmosphere of the classical Kabuki stage – even its blackhoooded kurogo, which Kinoshita introduces as stagehands conventionally “invisible”.
The Ballad of Narayama takes its screenplay from the best-selling novel of the same title by Shichiro Fukazawa. The story itself derives from a legend about a remote village in Nagano Perfecture, a place so impoverished that parents are by custom abandoned on a mountaintop when they reach the age of seventy. (Mount Narayama’s other name is Ubasute, literally “the mountain of abandoned old people.”)
The novel is notably “objective” in its depiction of tragic conflict between human feeling and inhuman custom imposed by crushing poverty. Kinoshita’s treatment is boldly theatrical. He said: “This is my first work in which I tried a unique manner of presentation and colorization based on the Japanese traditional artistic style.” The reference is to the Kabuki stage. Kinoshita carefully orchestrates its major devices in order to manipulate the spectator’s point of view, involving him in a dramatic interplay of detachment and involvement…
…Kinoshita creates “stageness,” leaning heavily on the props and colors and rotating screens of classical stagecraft. He has expressed his ambitions for this film in this way: “I want to explore captivating beauty – the sort of beauty which gives the impression that a child is peeping at something horrible. I want to create the effect of a picture of Hell.”
Keiko I. McDonald, Japanese Classical Theater in Films
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