Mar 162016


By: Bryant Daniels

The Ballad of Narayama was the final film to make an appearance on Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” list, and deserves to be present with other classics such as Harakiri and The Killing. Stemming from Japan’s Golden Age of cinema, The Ballad of Narayama is a Kabuki Theater style film that is built on lush colors, significant characterization, and the concepts of nobility and transition.

Based on the novel,The Men of Tohoku,and directed by Keisuke Kinoshita, The Ballad of Narayama is a tale about a small village that is struggling to feed it’s residents. Therefore, when citizens reach the age of 70, they are escorted to Mount Narayama to pass away with dignity. We follow the transition of Orin, a 70 year old widow who must face the journey to Narayama. Orin’s own story contrasts with her neighbor Mata, who, although he is of age to pass on, refuses to and scavenges for food throughout the village.

This cruel tale is told with the use of intentional artifice. The sets are carefully plotted and designed. The backgrounds are illuminated by matte paintings filled with extraordinary colors and beauty. The lighting in The Ballad of Narayama is used as part of the story telling and establishes the village and background characters as another compound entity that operates as one singular unit. There are contrasts of green and red, blue and gray, and the lighting allows for the director to highlight the emotional state of a scene. The film, by using the Kabuki Theater styling, evokes the same feeling of a fable and makes for easier acceptance of the harsh material


Harsh material indeed, at least, Orin’s son believes so. He struggles with letting go of his mother and wishes for her to stay with her one more day, while his wretched son wishes for Orin’s death out of selfish need. Orin’s grandson goes so far as to sing songs about her having all of her teeth due to making a deal with demons, and mocks her throughout the story line. Orin stands firm through the mocking and her son’s desires. She shows a noble spirit in her actions. She is the definition of pride. Orin goes so far as to ensure her son will be taken care of by selecting a widow from a neighboring town to marry her one and only child. When the young widow arrives, Orin shows her acceptance and grace, and in the process, establishes a familial connection with the would be stranger.

The film, overall, is about transition and acceptance. Every character in the film is going through a transitional period. Orin is moving in to a state of grace and is approaching self-sacrifice. Her son is getting married and losing his mother. His son has met a young girl, impregnated her, and is looking to start a family. The widow that Orin has set her son up with has left the only sense of normalcy she has ever known and is moving in to something completely different. Even the town goes through seasons of transition that are beautifully displayed within the artifice of Kabuki Theater. We get to see through each character, how they deal with the ebbs and flows of life. At this time, 1958, Japan was attempting to move on from World War II and accept not only what had been done to the country but what the country had done to others, including it’s own citizens. Maybe the film is to represent the acceptance of the horrendous within Japanese culture.

Looking at Keisuke Kinoshita’s previous work, including the previously reviewed Apostasy, there isn’t another film as striking, beautiful, or haunting. The last 20 minutes of the film bring to a close a breath taking and exhausting journey that reflects and respects tradition and cry’s out for acceptance. As the film closes, the widow looks to Orin’s son and says, “When we turn 70, we’ll go together up Narayama.” Saying, we will accept our fate with pride and move in to a new state of being.

Overall: Luscious backgrounds and sets, an unsettling yet poignant story, along with haunting visuals and transitions ensure The Ballad of Narayama will leave an impression and make you long for something more than selfish desires.

The Ballad of Narayama – 1958

Running time: 98 Minutes

Directed by: Keisuke Kinoshita

Written by: Keisuke Kinoshita

Starring – Kinuyo Tanaka, Teiji Takahashi, and Yûko Mochizuki

Rating: – 10/10

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