Eureka Entertainment // 1983 // 130 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // October 26th, 2011
"In life, we can't rely solely on our emotions."
Winner of the Palme d'Or at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, The Ballad Of Narayama (Blu-ray) (Region B) is one of three of director Shohei Imamura's films being released by Eureka on its "Masters of Cinema Line" (the other films being A Man Vanishes and Profound Desires Of The Gods).
In a remote Japanese village, harsh conditions and extreme poverty mean hard choices must be made. One such decision means that upon reaching seventy years old, the inhabitants are required by law to ascend Mount Narayama where they will be left to die. With a year left until she turns seventy, Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto) sets about tying up the loose ends within her own family, before she must make her final journey.
Life and death are never far apart in director Shohei Imamura's The Ballad Of Narayama. Focusing primarily on Orin as she prepares for her seventieth birthday, on which she will be taken to the top of Mount Narayama and left to die, the film offers a dark, sometimes comic, but ultimately beautiful representation of life.
One of the great ironies of Imamura's film is that Orin, who happily anticipates her own death, is the most alive person in the film; she is full of energy and is rarely seen to be handicapped by her age, going so far as to forcibly remove her own teeth in an attempt to look more like the "old hag" she feels she should be. Orin believes her energy and comparatively youthful looks are an affront to God, and not befitting of someone of her advanced years. Orin is also pivotal to her family's existence, as is argued by her son, Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata), who is the most reticent about his mother's fate -- perhaps in part due to the fact that it is he who must carry her to her final resting place. While it would be easy to assume The Ballad Of Narayama to be a morbid affair, this really isn't the case. Orin does not fear death. Rather, she worries about those she will be leaving behind, and so spends her final year attempting to help better their lives. Sumiko Sakamoto's portrayal of Orin is remarkable. She is a complex character, and her understanding of right and wrong is often blurred by her own thoughts and deeds.
Imamura's use of nature is integral to the points he makes, presenting a mirror into which we can view our own existence, free from the emotions that separate us from other species. We see snakes devouring rodents, frogs procreating, and owls observing their surroundings. Each of these small vignettes is a reflection of the acts being committed by the human characters, raising the question of how much we actually differ from the creatures we are seeing, and suggests that this divide is not as wide as we might like to believe. This is best exemplified during a disturbing scene where Orin calmly plots to have her son's pregnant wife murdered. Her motivation is simply that, with yet another mouth to feed, the hardships the family already endures will be increased further. Such an act may be unfathomable to those of us blessed with the comforts of the modern world, but when, only moments later, we see a mother and father go without food to ensure their children can enjoy a meager meal, it makes such callousness a little easier to understand. Indeed, in The Ballad Of Narayama, such reasoning is seen to be the norm. Having discovered a man has been stealing to feed his large family, the villagers employ their own form of justice which sees the entire family -- children included -- buried alive. It's a difficult scene to watch, and one that is not easily forgotten. However, it proves that, under the right conditions, man's base instincts will take over -- as is the case with nature.
The final 30 minutes of The Ballad Of Narayama are taken up by Orin's journey up the mountain. Carried by Tatsuhei, Orin faces the end with great dignity. She understands, and truly believes that what she is doing is right. She loves her children, and sees her death as a way of ensuring their future. This results in a haunting scene where Orin says goodbye to Tatsuhei amongst a field scattered with the bones of others who have made the same journey. No words are spoken, nor are they needed, as the two say goodbye for the final time in a beautifully realized sequence.
Throughout its runtime, The Ballad Of Narayama provokes strong reactions from its audience. It introduces us to an alien society that contrasts starkly with our own, yet still makes us question our own morality. We soon come to realize that for all the cruelty we are witness to, it is all done with the best of intentions: the survival of the next generation.
Eureka is putting out The Ballad Of Narayama as a Dual Format release. The Blu-ray sent for review contained an excellent 1.85:1 1080P transfer. A sharp, detailed picture is complemented by bright colors and deep blacks that add depth to the image. The DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack provides clear dialogue and sound effects in an otherwise flat mix.
Extras are a little limited, with the bulk being taken up by four trailers for the film. The only other extra on the disc is a 20-minute introduction to the film by Tony Rayns. The dual format release also includes a forty-four-page booklet, which includes an interview with Imamura Shohei, a statement by the director, a production diary, production stills, and more.
Of the handful of Imamura's films I have seen, The Ballad Of Narayama is easily his best, and -- not coincidentally -- his most human. Encompassing the whole spectrum of human emotion, it is a film that reminds us what is most precious in life, and to treat those we love as we ourselves would want to be treated.
Eureka's dual format release of The Ballad Of Narayama is difficult to criticize, beyond the small number of extra features included.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eureka Entertainment
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (Japanese)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* DVD Copy