The Ballad of Narayama (1983)

directed by Shohei Imamura

Plot Summary
In a Japanese village around a century ago, people try to survive among brutal conditions. A village custom says that when a person reaches the age of 70, they are to be taken to die at Narayama, a secret and mystical place in the mountains. The movie focuses on a particular family centered around Tatsuhei and his mother, Orin, who is approaching 70 years of age and looks forward to the approaching trip to Narayama. Tatsuhei's son falls in love with a young woman who is going to have his child, but she and her family are accused of being thieves and are killed. Tatsuhei's brother Risuke is a particularly sad fellow who desperately wants to have sex even though no woman in the village will have him. Orin realizes it is her time to be taken to Narayama, and Tatsuhei makes the arduous journey, carrying her on his back. He leaves her to die at Narayama and returns home.


The Ballad of Narayama is a brutal and often disgusting film. Clearly, these traits arise from Imamura's attempt to capture life honestly in this setting. Orin smashing her teeth out on a stone and Risuke's exploits with a village dog explicitly detail the desperation of these people to escape their hellish existence. The cruelty present in the villagers' lives is illustrated in the burying alive of an accused family and the murder of an old man by his son during their journey to Narayama. Furthermore, these hardships remain unbalanced because of a lack of any joy or redemption among the villagers--life is simply pain and hardship. Whatever pleasures one can take from the film, few will be drawn from its basic narrative.

The film firmly places its characters into the overall context of nature by inserting various shots of the surrounding fauna. These shots are not beautiful portraits of nature but graphic depictions of the various wildlife perpetuating their species. By juxtaposing these points in the creatures' lives with the villagers' experiences, the film suggests man to be merely another animal doing whatever it takes to survive. Perhaps under the conditions which the villagers exist, the filmmaker feels this is the truest way to portray them. More human qualities such as mercy and compassion are smothered by basic concerns such as a fear of starvation. It is a very bleak and pessimistic portrait of humanity that, nevertheless, lends support to Orin's eagerness to die.

Death permeates the film at different occasions. At the beginning Risuke finds a dead infant in the field, unwanted and tossed aside by a neighboring family. Near the middle of the film, the accused family is buried alive by the villagers, and Tatsuhei admits to his mother that he shot his father and buried him at the base of a tree for losing the courage to take his own mother to Narayama. The former scene is carried out in real time giving it a naturalistic and frightening feel; the latter, however, is less successful as Imamura plays with the speed and composition of the film in an attempt to give the scene a supernatural quality. The conclusion has Tatsuhei witnessing another man toss his reluctant father off a cliff on the journey to Narayama. The filmmaker seems to treat the villagers' lives and deaths with a shade of indifference, and the viewer remains distanced from the story. With no character to identify with, the film becomes a string of absurd and mean-spirited episodes on its way to the climactic trip to Narayama. Up to this point, the film rarely strays from its abject path, gaining points for realism but not necessarily for enjoyment or insight.

The film strangely abandons its more objective approach and portrays Orin and her son's journey to Narayama with a reverential, mystical view. Orin disappears when Tatsuhei searches for a good path, but she later reappears in the same spot. Interestingly, the film returns to its stark realism to show the bones and rotting bodies of others who have died at Narayama just as Orin will. Snow falls as Orin sits at Narayama and waits, and Tatsuhei returns home sad but also pleased that his mother reached her destination. But this ending feels empty rather than satisfying, as if the film is unsure whether the villagers can transcend their existence. Although the Narayama tradition is generally regarded as sacred by both characters and filmmaker, it seems almost as brutal and useless as much of what we have been shown. Perhaps if Imamura would have kept his cold indifferent tone to the last, The Ballad of Narayama would have been a more meaningful film, and it certainly would have been a more consistent one. Tatsuhei's father, mentioned briefly, would have made an interesting character for he apparently questioned some of the customs carried on in the village. He refused to take his mother to Narayama and told the upset Tatsuhei that he didn't understand anything. It's a shame that for going against the grain he is labeled a coward and murdered by his son, and cruel traditionalism triumphs and continues forward.

2 of 10

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© 1998

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