Using old age, life and death as its engine, Keisuke Kinoshita’s The Ballad of Narayama is a lavish, lyrical and poetic folk tale.
Implementing a kabuki-style feel, Narayama is a multi-dimensional tale that uses its stunning sets ranging from gorgeous to haunting to tell its timeless fable about a 69-year-old woman named Orin and the practice of ubasute – or “abandoning old woman” – in her traditional Japanse village.
The traditional practice of ubasute, which was said to be done in Japan’s past, was when an elderly relative was carried to a specific mountain and left to die of starvation, or some other cause. Kinoshita’s 1958 take on the fable is a discussion about the relevancy of traditions and customs and their relation to our modern cultures.
Because Narayama is about such an in-your-face topic like the acceptance of death and coming to grips with it, no matter what your age is, Kinoshita’s film becomes an intense and honest discussion about life. Orin, a mother and grandmother full of pride, is eager and ready to experience ubasute, much more so than your average elder (her older neighbor being a great example of the conflicting feeling about this tradition). Her son, who has just lost his wife and gained a new one, feels differently.
And while there’s this very real matter to think about and watch play out, what makes Kinoshita’s film standout so much is its surreal atmosphere and unconventional staging. Both can credit Kinoshita’s use of kabuki elements for that. By using lavishly created and designed set pieces and by manipulating the lighting, Kinoshita is in ultimate control of his elements. Everything is the way he wants it, and that’s important to remember. With the flick of a switch or the placement of a light, Kinoshita manipulates his story, his sets and his characters. This is totally under his control and he displays a masterful approach.
When Narayama is most effective it is combining a dramatic and important moment with Kinoshita’s unbeatable style. I’ve never seen another of his films, and I can’t imagine many being like this, but his touch certainly seems almost forgotten in the grand scheme of innovating filmmaking from that decade. For this film to have been made in 1958 and look the way it does is almost unbelievable.
The folk tale that is at the heart of Narayama, despite being something grounded in a fable many of us aren’t familiar with, is actually enough to be relevant today. There are still a lot of traditions and customs, perhaps not soaked in mortality like this one is, that could be questioned. In relation to our cultures and our lives do these traditions fit? Kinoshita leaves us with an open-ended conclusion that, while only being a few seconds long, absolutely turns the entire film on its head and introduces a new discussion.
The Ballad of Narayama is one of the most unique and downright good-looking Japanese films I’ve ever seen. With a lot of images, sounds and ideas to take in, Narayama‘s majesty will leave you in awe of Kinoshita’s ability to stage a film and its chilling moments will haunt you.