Monday, August 04, 2014

The Ballad of Narayama (1958 film)




Based on the book Men of Tohoku by Shichiro Fukazawa, The Ballad of Narayama is the story of a woman who is near death as she asks her son to take her to a mountain where she can die so he can start his new life. Written for the screen and directed by Keisuke Kinoshita, the film is a chilling tale set in ancient Japan as it explores the concept of ubasute where an elderly person is sent to a mountain to live out its final days. Starring Kinuyo Tanaka, Teiji Takahashi, Yuko Mochizuki, Danko Ichikawa, Keiko Ogasawara, and Seiji Miyaguchi. The Ballad of Narayama is a rich yet heartbreaking film from Keisuke Kinoshita.

Set in ancient Japan in a remote village, the film explores the final days of an old woman whose widowed son is about to be marry to a widow as she is eager to go to the mountain of Narayama to spend her final days. It is told in kabuki-style approach to storytelling where some of its narrative is sung in the tradition of kabuki theater as it plays into the sense of melancholia that looms throughout the film. The film’s screenplay has a very unconventional narrative where the first half concerns about Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) preparing her middle-aged son Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi) to marry a respectable widow in Tamayan (Yuko Mochizuki) while dealing with her own mortality. The second half is about Orin wanting to prepare her journey to the mystical mountain of Narayama as she and Tatsuhei are given instructions about what to do in their journey.

During the course of the film, there’s moments where Orin is being treated like a pariah by people in her village as she is the next to die while her family such as her eldest grandson would make songs about her. Yet, Orin would get the support and care of Tamayan who is new in the family as Orin would be the one to take her in first. Orin is a woman that represents all that is good with the family as she is an exceptional cook as well as someone who is wise as she would also help an old neighbor in Matayan (Seiji Miyaguchi) who is being mistreated by his son (Yunosuke Ito) who wants to take him to Narayama to die. There’s an element of cruelty over the way elderly has to go to this mountain to die but there’s also a sense of honor as it’s something Tatsuhei would have trouble dealing with as he loves his mother very much.

Keisuke Kinoshita’s direction is truly mesmerizing in the way he presents the film where it is shot entirely on a soundstage where it would act like a live kabuki-theater performance. It is set in a world where there’s a lot of visual backdrops where some of them would drop into another for scenes set at night or the lighting would suddenly change to create a mood. Kinoshita’s direction also includes these intricate dolly shots where the camera would pan from one section of the village to another to follow the characters while also using some medium shots to play into an intimacy in the drama. There’s also some tense moments such as a meeting where Orin and Tatsuhei would meet with those who went to Narayama as it is one of the film’s chilling moments. It would then climax into this journey of Orin on Tatsuhei’s back to trek into Narayama as it’s a journey full of mysticism and faith as well as what to expect when a person’s time is up. Overall, Kinoshita crafts a very intoxicating and somber film about death and the ideas of life itself.

Cinematographer Hiroyuki Kusuda does brilliant work with the film‘s rich and evocative cinematography with its array of colors and mood changes in the lighting as well as in the way some of the scenes are presented in its interior and exterior settings. Editor Yoshi Sugihara does nice work with the editing as it‘s very straightforward in terms of transitions and rhythmic cuts for the dramatic elements of the film. Production designers Kisaku Ito and Chiyoo Umeda do amazing work with the design of the entire village as well as the homes and mountain areas that includes the Narayama mountain.

Sound recorders Hideo Nishizaki and Hisao Ono do terrific work with the sound from the way some of the moments in the locations are presented as well as the sound of the weather for certain parts of the film. The film’s music by Rokuzaemon Kineya and Matsunosuke Nozawa is absolutely incredible as it is played in two very different styles with the former playing these dissonant and unsettling string instruments that add to the sense of dread with Nozawa doing the more vocal-based music where they become more intense once the two styles come together as it‘s a major highlight of the film.

The film’s excellent cast include some notable small roles from Eijiro Tono as the messenger who tells Orin about Tama, Ken Mitsuda as a local villager in Teru, Keiko Ogasawara as Kesakichi’s fiancĂ©e` Matsu, Danko Ichikawa as Tatsuhei’s eldest son Kesakichi, Yunosuke Ito as Mata’s very selfish and abusive son, and Seiji Miyaguchi in a terrific role as the old and mistreated Mata who is always starving as Orin would feed him. Yuko Mochizuki is brilliant as Tama as this widow who marries Tatsuhei as she ponders about being in a new family where she is immediately embraced by Orin while being the most understanding and caring person in the film.

Teiji Takahashi is fantastic as Tatsuhei as a middle-aged man dealing with the new marriage he’s in as well as what he has to do when it is time for his mother to die as it’s a role that is quite intense but also full of sensitivity. Finally, there’s Kinuyo Tanaka in a phenomenal performance as Orin as this old woman dealing with mortality as well as the role she is about to play as she is someone who would accept the idea of death as it’s one full of grace and wisdom which is more surprising since Tanaka was in her late 40s as she was playing a woman at the age of 70.

The 2013 Region 1 DVD/Region A Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection presents the film in a new 2K digital master from a 2011 restoration in its 2:35:1 theatrical aspect ratio with remastered and restored sound in Dolby Digital Mono. The DVD/Blu-Ray set doesn’t feature any extras other than a teaser and trailer for the film but it does feature a booklet that features an essay by British film critic Philip Kemp about the film entitled Abandonment. Kemp essentially talks about Kinoshita’s place in Japanese cinema as well as the film itself which was quite daring for being experimental and traditional as it was considered one of the key films in Japanese cinema’s golden age after World War II. Kemp also discusses some of the film’s political and social allegories in the way old people are treated in the wake of World War II where nationalism took over and many of its moralities got lost until the war ended. It’s a very fascinating piece about one of Japan’s key films.

The Ballad of Narayama is a remarkable film from Keisuke Kinoshita that features an outstanding performance from Kinuyo Tanaka. The film is definitely one of the most beautiful and harrowing films about death and tradition as it would some very exotic cinematography and a mesmerizing film score. In the end, The Ballad of Narayama is a tremendously dazzling film from Keisuke Kinoshita.

Keisuke Kinoshita Films: Army - (Carmen Comes Home) - (Twenty-Four Eyes) - (Years of Sorrow and Joy) - (Immortal Love)

© thevoid99 2014

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