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Film Club: The Ballad of Narayama (Imamura, 1983)

The Ballad of NarayamaShōhei Imamura’s 1983 The Ballad of Narayama is our film club‘s feature for this October. It could be described as a movie about birth, death and the social norms that govern our lives in between.

The film is based on Shichirō Fukazawa’s 1956 novel of the same title and also borrows somewhat from Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1958 kabuki film adaptation of the same which is also titled The Ballad of Narayama.

The story is set in a small poor Japanese rural village in the 19th century. According to a village tradition necessitated by the scarcity of resources, once a person reaches the age of 70 he or she must be carried off to a nearby mountain to be left to die of starvation (see the custom of ubasute). The film follows Orin, a perfectly healthy 69-year-old woman who makes preparations for her own departure, arranging the affairs of both her family and the village.

The Ballad of Narayama film won the Palme d’Or at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, as well as being awarded for the Best Film, Best Actor (Ken Ogata) and Best Sound by the Japanese Film Academy in the 1984 award ceremony.

Although the film’s availability is slightly worse than what it was back when we created our film club schedule, the film is available both in Europa and North America. Do note that especially in the US stores, the first search results with the film’s title tend to be for the Criterion edition of the 1958 film, not the 1983 version by Imamura. Although having said that, the 1958 film is definitely also worth checking out.

Our next month’s film will be Kurosawa’s Ran. The full schedule can be found at the film club page.

Image: A Polish poster The Ballad Ballad of Narayama, from MovePosterDB.com


Discussion

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Ugetsu

I just found out that it’ll be a week or so before I get my copy (I’m trying to wean myself off Amazon and their monopolistic practices). I am looking forward to it, the few Immamura films I’ve seen have been intriguing. I have seen the earlier Kinoshita version, which I found very disappointing (although interestingly, on imdb it gets a higher rating than the Immamura film). It may be that there are depths to the story that a Japanese audience would get which went over my head, but it did nothing to change my opinion of Kinoshita based on the films I’ve seen that despite the very high regard and status he had during the golden age of Japanese cinema, he was rather shallow film maker in comparison to the true greats of that period. The Ballad of Narayama seemed to me to be very ‘literal’ and didactic, with no attempt to look deeper beneath the story and myth.

I find that most attempts to make ancient myths and stories into films rarely succeed unless the film maker is really willing to deconstruct the story and its meaning and build something entirely new and contemporary. Examples that come to mind would be John Boormans Excaliber or Neil Jordans The Company of Wolves. To an extent, I’ve always been fond of the idea developed by Martinez that Kurosawa’s Yojimbo was a similar deconstruction of folk tales about mischievous marebito spirits. So I’m hoping a director of Immamura’s intelligence did something similar.

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Vili Maunula

So, The Ballad of Narayama. I had watched Kinoshita’s 1958 film to prepare myself and had quite high hopes, since so many are saying that Imamura’s take is better. In the end, I must say that I prefer Kinoshita, but then again I’m a sucker for style and Kinoshita’s experiment with kabuki and film just worked really well for me. Sure, Imamura’s is perhaps a better and deeper film, but I felt Kinoshita to be far more interesting.

This is not to say that Imamura’s film is really a disappointment. It’s just a completely different take on the story. The approach is far more grounded in realism, although somewhat paradoxically I didn’t find myself really caring for any of the characters the way I cared for them in Kinoshita’s theatrical version. Imamura’s eye seems more distant, more documentary, and he presents the story not in the context of a myth or legend, but the nature that surrounds us. Which does work really well.

The town in Imamura’s film feels real, so much so that I think it is one of the most believable pre-industrial rural villages that I have seen depicted in Japanese film. The acting is very natural as well, and I think that for the most part the cast does a great job. There is no trace of the kind of theatricality found in Kurosawa, let alone in Kinoshita’s Ballad of Narayama.

And yet, there isn’t much that remained with me that I hadn’t already thought about after watching Kinoshita’s film. I am therefore not sure if Imamura’s film really brings anything new to the table. I may need to rewatch the second half, though.

In any case, one totally random observation stayed with me. Is it just me, or do we get far fewer aerial shots these days than what still used to be the case in the early 80s? The Ballad of Narayama starts with a long aerial pan across snow covered mountains. These days, we mainly seem to get aerial shots when we actually are on board an aircraft, or then a bird or something is shown to establish where the aerial point of view comes from. I wonder if it’s because these days a very large proportion of the general public has actually boarded an airplane or a helicopter, so today we associate the aerial view with flying. I even noticed that while watching the opening titles, I was a little uncomfortable about the idea of me flying around in 19th century Japan. Surely, there were no airplanes back then.

Hopefully, you guys will manage to find a copy of the film, whether through Amazon or elsewhere.

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Ugetsu

I’ve just watched it – I was really quite surprised by it, such a different film from the first version.

First off, having watched Tony Rayns introduction I now know I was completely mistaken thinking that the Ballad of Narayama is a traditional story – I hadn’t realised it was a relatively modern book which had been deliberately written as if it was an old myth. That does, I think, put a different context in the decision of Kinoshita to go very abstract in his version, while Imamura’s is far more naturalistic.

My overall view is almost the same as Vili’s here. I really liked the film and found it quite moving, although I’m not sure there is a lot to say about it. Its a very literal film in many ways – the metaphors (the animals always mirroring the activities of the humans) – are so heavy handed there is little room for any interpretation other than the obvious ones. There is little real sense of mystery to the film. The acting and the setting was very well done – you could almost smell the woodsmoke and boiling potatoes of the village.

My video rental shop very kindly ordered a copy for me – I’m not sure if the sale version is the same but it came with two Eureka (Masters of Cinema) disks – I thought the second disk was for extra’s, but it turns out that one is the blu-ray version (unfortunately, I watched the regular version). I had a quick flick through the blu-ray one and it is hugely superior to the regular version – I’m not sure if it has been digitally tidied up, but it looks very different – not just clearer, but the colour mix seems quite different. Anyway, this is certainly one example of where it is definitely worth seeking out the blu ray version if you have a player.

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Ugetsu

On a slightly off-topic point, I’m interested in Tony Rayns introduction to the film where he says the Japanese film industry at the time had decided genre films were no longer profitable and were instead looking for ‘tentpole’ productions and films with the potential for foreign distribution. He says that Imamura was surprised the studio opted for Narayama instead of the crime thriller he also pitched to them. If I recall correctly, Donald Richie in his history of Japanese cinema suggests more or less the opposite – that the studios retreated to making cheap genre films and strongly resisted anything seen as experimental. Although of course its pretty obvious from Richies book that he seems to have lost interest in contemporary Japanese cinema from around the 1970’s onward, and his view was perhaps coloured by what happened to Kurosawa after Red Beard.

I mention this because it does (if Rayns is correct) put into perspective Kurosawa’s arguments in the 1960’s that the way forward for cinema was big, meaty ‘event’ films with national and international appeal. It does seem, in effect, that he was right and the studios were wrong, he was just maybe a decade too early in making the arguments. It does make his lean period all the more tragic I think – its not just a case of losing years of great Kurosawa film, there were plenty of other good film makers around who could strengthened the entire Japanese film industry. But then again of course, it would probably have taken just one Japanese Heavens Gate to send it back to square one….

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Vili Maunula

My (relatively poor) understanding is that the 60s and 70s were genre film time, but in the 80s Japanese studios moved more towards tent pole strategies, just like studios did elsewhere in the world thanks to the success of Jaws and the blockbuster films that followed it.

Whether Narayama really is a tent pole film is of course another question. I’m actually a bit surprised that it got made with the budget that it had, considering that it’s not really Jaws, or even Kagemusha, in terms of content. Reading contemporary reviews, it seems that it was too peculiar to be a hit even then — see for instance the last paragraph in Roger Ebert’s review from 1983.

I took a quick look at Kinoshita’s version again, and I’m still amazed by the beauty of that film. Each shot is almost like a painting, and the camera, lighting and stage work is stunning. The contrast to Imamura’s film is huge, and I wonder if I had maybe enjoyed Imamura’s film more had I not prepared for it by watching Kinoshita’s version first.

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Ugetsu

Vili

My (relatively poor) understanding is that the 60s and 70s were genre film time, but in the 80s Japanese studios moved more towards tent pole strategies, just like studios did elsewhere in the world thanks to the success of Jaws and the blockbuster films that followed it.

You could well be right, I’m just slightly biased by my reading and watching which of course tends towards either the golden age period, or the more fun exploitation stuff from the 1970’s. Just that off the top of my head I couldn’t think of many high profile Japanese films from the 1980’s apart from Kurosawa’s work.

Whether Narayama really is a tent pole film is of course another question. I’m actually a bit surprised that it got made with the budget that it had, considering that it’s not really Jaws, or even Kagemusha, in terms of content. Reading contemporary reviews, it seems that it was too peculiar to be a hit even then

Unfortunately, imdb doesn’t have box office info, but it does seem to have had a pretty good international release schedule, and even a limited release in the US. I assume that a Palme D’Or winner would have had a reasonable box office in Europe. I get the impression from Tony Rayns introduction that the studio felt that they’d been boxed in by falling genre receipts and so were more open to what might seem ‘off the wall’ ideas, rather than necessarily obvious tent-pole productions. That said, the film was very obviously made on a good budget, so presumably they had strong commercial aspirations for it.

I took a quick look at Kinoshita’s version again, and I’m still amazed by the beauty of that film. Each shot is almost like a painting, and the camera, lighting and stage work is stunning. The contrast to Imamura’s film is huge, and I wonder if I had maybe enjoyed Imamura’s film more had I not prepared for it by watching Kinoshita’s version first.

I must give the film a second chance. From memory (its quite a few years since I watched it), the dvd version I saw was quite poor. I’m always a little resistant to films which are very abstract or formal, so I might not have given it a fair viewing.

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Ugetsu

Me

My video rental shop very kindly ordered a copy for me

Lately I seem to have a bad habit of hexing things. As soon as I praise my local dvd rental shop I find out its closing down – another victim of streaming. I called in yesterday to see if I could pick up some Japanese films I wanted, but apparently all the interesting ones were bought by my city library. I suppose at least that means they will still be available. Still, it seems that until someone systematically puts interesting old films online, its back to depending on big bad Amazon with its tax dodging ways and abusive employment practices.

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Vili Maunula

I’m a bit slow with this reply, but I’m sorry to hear about the closing down of your local shop. I hope it won’t affect your access to interesting films!

If it makes you feel any better, I live in a town where the only cinema has just one screen and shows almost all of their films dubbed, while the single rental place that we have is quite a scary joint, even in video rental standards, and as it mainly stocks the latest Hollywood fluff, I end up buying much of what I watch and travelling to the capital to see new films on the big screen. We are still waiting for those streaming services here.

While I definitely get what you are saying about Amazon, I actually buy a lot of stuff from them. I think I would actually buy everything including groceries from them if I could. It’s not just that the prices are good (no doubt thanks to their practices of creative taxation and whatever else), but in my experience the customer service is also very good, in fact one of the best that I have had to deal with. They are also well stocked, so it’s just so easy to go to their website and order, rather than start hunting for things from smaller shops. So, I guess you can indirectly blame me for the closure of your local rental!

But that’s why I keep linking to Amazon when I mention new films or books. It’s just easy and usually more or less the best deal. Well, that and the fact that as an affiliate I get a tiny little cut from the sales which buys me a CD every now and then. 🙂

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