Ballad of Narayama, The (Japan, 1958)

August 11, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Ballad of Narayama, The Poster

The Ballad of Narayama, a 1958 Japanese film from director Keisuke Kinoshita, is revered in some critical circles because of its extreme stylization – using the art of kabuki theater to form a template for the exploration of Shichiro Fukazawa’s novel. Roger Ebert, in one of his final reviews, awarded the film four stars, and he was not alone in his praise for it. However, the reason why some critics laud the production is why I don’t believe it works. Kabuki on film is a hard sell, especially for a Western audience. (I am aware that there’s a cultural divide involved here both in terms of the era when The Ballad of Narayama was made and the tradition in which it exists.) Its artifice creates a unique, theatrical aesthetic but that leeches away any emotional connection with the characters. They are too obviously actors playing parts – chess pieces being moved around by a filmmaker. We are aware of the movie’s central tragedy on an intellectual level but it doesn’t touch us the way it should. As a result, The Ballad of Narayama feels drawn-out, like a film school short that has been stretched beyond its natural length.

The Ballad of Narayama transpires in a remote Japanese village where food shortages have resulted in a policy that, once someone turns 70, a close family member will carry them up into the mountains to a place called “Narayama,” where they are left in the open to die of exposure. There are rules associated with the activity – no talking is allowed inside Narayama, no one must see the soon-to-be-dead person and his/her caretaker depart, and the caretaker cannot look back once the deed is done. Some embrace this more willingly than others, seeing it as a necessary sacrifice and natural progression of life.

One such person is Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) who, as she approaches her 70th birthday, speaks with anticipation of “going to Narayama.” Death holds no fear for her. Her family is divided. Her son, Tatshuei (Teiji Takahashi), is unwilling to face his part in the journey (he will be the one to carry her). Orin’s grandson, however, is looking forward to her being gone, since it will leave more food for him and his growing brood. Meanwhile, in the same village, an elderly man, Mata (Seiji Miyaguchi), approaches his end with less calmness and nobility. He doesn’t want to die and, in the end, his son has to tie him up in order to get him to make the trip.

The film is presented almost like a puppet show with live actors taking the place of marionettes. This is especially evident during the film’s visually arresting final 15 minutes, when there is almost no dialogue. In order to convey strong emotions (especially with Kinoshita electing not to use close-ups), the actors (notably Teiji Takahashi, who plays the son) employ exaggerated movements similar to what one sometimes sees in stage plays (an affectation necessary to inform viewers in the “cheap seats”). This type of overacting was common during the silent era and carried over into the early talkies but it’s surprising to see it in a 1958 production and is another result of steeping The Ballad of Narayama in the kabuki tradition.