Directed by Shohei Imamura
Starring Ken Ogata, Sumiko Sakamoto, Aki Takejo, Tonpei Hidari
Being a fan of Shohei Imamura’s work (The Insect Woman, Vengeance is Mine); I couldn’t wait to pop this DVD into the player. The good people of Animeigo recently released The Ballad of Narayama (1983) on DVD.
The title card tells us that this story takes place 100 years ago. What appears to be a quaint Japanese village initially is anything but quaint and serene. Life is hard here, really hard.
In this village, once a person reaches 70 years old, they are taken to a nearby mountain to die to ease the burden on the rest of the villagers. And those that make it to 70 years of age in this village should consider themselves lucky.
Newborn males are regularly abandoned and newborn females are sold to salt dealers. So, if you make it to 70, you have really achieved something here, through sheer luck or raw physical and mental strength.
In one scene, a family is discovered by other villagers to be food thieves. This cannot be tolerated here. So, in the middle of the night, the villagers throw several screaming bodies into a massive hole in the ground. Imamura makes a brilliant directing choice here: the film’s score stops and all we here are the sounds of labor, hands digging through the earth, hurried breaths and soil moving. No one speaks; they just get the job done. Once the family has been buried alive, the other villagers return silently to their homes.
Children are shown to have disrespect for their elders. Orin (Aki Takejo), the central character that is the focus of the film, is taunted by the children, seemingly anxious for her to be taken to the mountain to die. They shout “old demon” at her daily.
Orin has many things on her mind, other than her impending trip to the mountain. She has a son, Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata) that has some problems. He is shiftless and is still a virgin, which is an embarrassment to him and his family. Villagers and family members make jokes about him that are tasteless and vulgar. They snicker and say that farm animals will not be safe until he finds a woman. So before Orin can make her final trip to the mountain, she has to get Tatsuhei’s life in order and settle some scores.
The Ballad of Narayama continues Imamura’s exploration into the ugly side of humanity. The people in his films are not the simple, stoic and good hearted people that one might see in a Yasujiro Ozu (for whom Imamura used to work as an assistant director) film. The people of Imamura’s films have dirt under their fingernails and dubious and dark motivations in their hearts. These people betray one another, scrap and claw to make a living and grab and snatch for the things they want in life. Imamura frequently cuts to animals breeding, killing and eating during this film as a way to make a point: the people in this village are much like their animal counterparts. The only difference is that the villagers have the power of speech.
What is to become of Orin? I will let you discover that. I am not a fan of spoilers so I won’t reveal the conclusion of this film here.
The Ballad Of Narayama is a great film. It is raw and visceral and does not present life in a sugarcoated way. I appreciate this. This film deserved the long list of awards it received upon its release. Any true fan of Japanese cinema should add this to their collection immediately.
The Ballad Of Narayama is presented in anamorphic widescreen. Animeigo has done a nice transfer of this film without any grain or artifacts and nicely vibrant colors.
The Ballad of Narayama is presented in Dolby Stereo in the original Japanese language with optional English subtitles. Animeigo again provides the excellent option of “Limited” and “Full” translations. The difference is “limited” will only translate the spoken dialogue. “Full” will not only translate the spoken dialogue but also will also give translations of signs and explain Japanese terminology and cultural differences.
While not the most dynamic presentation, it gets the job done.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The Ballad Of Narayama is presented in a standard amaray case with artwork that captures the spirit of the film perfectly.
There is not much in the way of bonus features. There is a theatrical trailer, photo gallery and liner notes.
While the bonus material is not plentiful, it is great to have a nice transfer of this Japanese film classic.
Overall (Not an Average) 7.5/10
The Movie 8/10
The Video 7.5/10
The Audio 7/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 3/10
Overall (Not an Average) 7.5/10