Criterion // 1958 // 98 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Daryl Loomis // March 29th, 2013
The harvest in autumn brings sorrow even as the rice ripens to a golden hue.
Kabuki theater is a very specific Japanese art that conforms to rigid rules of singing and dancing, so calling a narrative film Kabuki in style seems hardly possible, at least in any traditional sense. That is, until one watches The Battle of Narayama. While not Kabuki in its strictest terms (there is little in the way of singing and dancing), director Keisuke Kinoshita (Apostasy) uses many aspects of the form to relay a Japanese legend that is old in story but new in style, even when viewed half a century after it was made. I don't know that I've ever seen a movie quite like this and, luckily, I'm able to see it today in a beautiful release from the Criterion Collection.
In a small, destitute Japanese village, food is so scarce that the citizens utilize a practice known as Obasute, in which the elderly, upon their seventieth birthday, must travel up the mountain known as Narayama. There, they will die from exposure rather than burden their families. As her death date approaches, Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka, Sansho the Bailiff) is filled with sorrow, not because she has to die, but because her mouth is still full of teeth. To her and her family, this represents a truly shameful idea: that she still eats like a young woman.
Unlike other cinematic representations of Kabuki Theater, The Ballad of Narayama is not a filmed play. The story doesn't even come from the tradition and, instead, is based on a novel that was itself based on a popular folk legend. For Kinoshita, the Kabuki presentation was a purely stylistic choice, a strange and effective one, at that. As Kabuki plays do, the narrator, masked and clad head to toe in black, clacks a pair of oak sticks together to signify its beginning, then pulling back a curtain to start the action.
What we see when that curtain is drawn is not a bare stage, but an elaborate studio set. There is no pretense at realism here; these sets are hyper-stylized and gorgeous. Day and night are delineated by the raising and lowering of studio lights, while scene changes happen by the pulling up or down of backdrops. There are traditional cuts when large changes take place, but much of it is done by smooth transitioning in a very theatrical style. The oversized landscapes and widely varied lighting colors lend a constant surreal feeling to the film. Interiors and exteriors are equally met with intricate detail and bright, almost pastel colors that belie the inherent morbidity of the story.
The unflinching and straightforward manner that The Ballad of Narayama deals with poverty, aging, and death is striking, especially given the high style look of the film. In spite of a few humorous moments, it is exceedingly grim. Obasute is translated as "abandonment of old people" and is the overriding theme of the movie, but the idea of a child carrying a parent up a mountain to let him or her die is rough enough, but the other main issue involves Orin so filled with self-hatred over her teeth that she spends half the film looking for a way to knock them out, so at least she looks the part. This becomes even darker with the arrival of her son's new wife and the impending birth of her grandson's child, making Orin's sorrow even more profound. But, for all of that, there are moments of comedy that keep the movie from becoming a total beating. These are few and far between, but are just enough to give the film a great balance.
This is all to the credit of Kinoshita's directorial skills and Tanaka's presence and power as an actress. A woman of less than fifty at the time, she portrays a hunched person more than twenty years her senior with absolute resolve and believability. She carries the whole film and, when the final, inevitable resolution arrives, she brings a genuine and heartfelt strength to her destiny, especially as opposed to the spectacle her son finds while grieving on his way down the mountain. At the very end, after the story has come to a close, there is a brief bit that pulls us away from the elaborate sets and into a real life location. A train pulls into a town, with a sign naming it Obasute Station. Here, Kinoshita makes the most of what he has built, delivering one last stylistic note, establishing the enduring legacy of the existential trouble with the legacy, and capping off the utterly unique experience of The Ballad of Narayama.
The Ballad of Narayama is presented on Blu-ray by Criterion in a technically gorgeous edition, but one that is sadly lacking in the company's typical array of supplements. The 2.35:1/1080p transfer is fantastic, with terrific clarity and detail. Colors are brilliant and whites are bright, with the only problem coming from some inconsistent black levels. They're rare; most are deep, but there are a few instances where they look blocky and allow some color to bleed over. The sound is great, too, with an excellent PCM mono mix that has great dynamic range and perfectly clear dialog and strong music. I love how the disc looks and sounds, but the lack of any supplements beyond the customary essay booklet and a trailer is a real disappointment.
Kabuki Theater mixed with a morbid story and heavy stylization is a fantastic recipe for my enjoyment of a movie and The Ballad of Narayama does it better than I could have hoped. Although there are no significant extras on the disc, the film is beautiful, sad, extremely well made, and something I can happily recommend to anybody, with or without a knowledge or love of Kabuki or Japanese cinema.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1958
MPAA Rating: Not Rated