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The Ballad of Narayama (1983): The village as a microcosm of life.

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    Ugetsu

    I just watched the film last night, and I’m throwing out these half formed thoughts.

    It does see clear that the attraction of the source story of The Ballad of Narayama to Imamura is the notion of this mythical village as an allegory for the human condition and how societies operate. Tony Rayns in his introduction says he originally had the idea of shooting a pre-title introduction, set in the present day, where a modern family would drop off their granny to a distant old folks home, promising to return to visit, but clearly having no intention of doing so. I presume it was dropped as the symbolism was too heavy handed even for this film, where Imamura never tires of cutting from human behaviour to equivalent behaviour in snakes, rats, moths and preying mantis. While (so far as I am aware) there was no real-life equivalent of this village which condemned its old folks, there would have been plenty of villages which enforced strict and cruel laws and norms on behaviour in order to fend off starvation. And presumably, in Imamura’s view, he would have seen an extension of this intolerance of weakness or loose behaviour into contemporary Japanese society. And of course, as in so many Japanese films, we see the conflict between codes of honour, group behaviour, and individual human need and empathy, whether it is Tatsuhui’s refusal to lose his mother, or his brother being brought to near insanity by sexual deprivation.

    This notion of using a stressed village or group of people as a sort of allegory for modern society seems to be a common theme in Japanese cinema, not least with Kurosawa. The Hidden Depths and Dodes’ka-den are very similar I think to Narayama in taking an isolated group of people under external stress (in all three cases, poverty in one form or another) and examining what it means for human behaviour and society. One of my favourite Japanese films, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman of the Dunes, takes this to an extreme, in making a man, held captive by a woman in a pit in a landscape of sand dunes, as his allegorical microcosm. Although perhaps reflective of the generation and background of the film makers, Teshigahara and Imamura are much more interested I think in sexuality and male/female relationships than Kurosawa ever was.

    I’m not sure if this is a specifically Japanese concern – plenty of US and European films of course have focused on small communities under stress, and many filmed versions of folktales (or invented folktales, such as The Company of Wolves) have been allegorical in intent, but it rarely seems to be as bluntly allegorical as the Japanese films.

    As for Imamura’s film – I do find it interesting that (unlike, I’m sure, Kurosawa would have done), he avoided any mention at all of Lords or Samurai. The oppressive village laws seem to come not from a feudal relationship, but from the villagers themselves. In a way therefore I think Imamura seems a much more pessimistic film maker than Kurosawa. While Kurosawa would, I think, have seen oppression as something originating from the exercise of power by leaders, Imamura seems to see oppression as coming from human behaviour itself. The poorest of the villagers seem the most enthusiastic proponents of capital punishment, sexual restrictions and euthanasia. It is the kindly and wise old lady who is most ruthless in dispatching her pregnant daughter in law and, indeed, herself. But I think noticeably, Imamura does see it all arising from a pragmatic approach to poverty. There are plenty of hints in the film I think that if the village was less repressive, all that would happen would be overpopulation and mass starvation. If he intended this as an allegory for modern society, then it was a very pessimistic view of humanity indeed.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: Tony Rayns in his introduction says he originally had the idea of shooting a pre-title introduction, set in the present day, where a modern family would drop off their granny to a distant old folks home, promising to return to visit, but clearly having no intention of doing so.

    That’s interesting! Kinoshita’s version actually ends with a similar idea. In it, we are at the end taken to a contemporary setting where a train stops at a station called Ubasute, in front of a sign which I think says “the place for dropping off old people”, or something similar. The way it is presented is an interesting contrast to the highly theatrical period film that has preceded this final scene, and I think it works really effectively as a coda.

    Ugetsu: As for Imamura’s film – I do find it interesting that (unlike, I’m sure, Kurosawa would have done), he avoided any mention at all of Lords or Samurai. The oppressive village laws seem to come not from a feudal relationship, but from the villagers themselves. In a way therefore I think Imamura seems a much more pessimistic film maker than Kurosawa. While Kurosawa would, I think, have seen oppression as something originating from the exercise of power by leaders, Imamura seems to see oppression as coming from human behaviour itself.

    This too is an interesting observation. I would like to say, however, that I think that in Kurosawa’s version the oppressive laws would ultimately also be traced to human behaviour. I don’t think that any of Kurosawa’s films really promote a world view that goes blindly against powers that be, although he certainly criticises them a great deal. In my view, Kurosawa simply expects more from those who make decisions that affect the lives of others. Not that Kurosawa isn’t also concerned about the decisions that we make solely about our own personal fates.

    Ugetsu: There are plenty of hints in the film I think that if the village was less repressive, all that would happen would be overpopulation and mass starvation. If he intended this as an allegory for modern society, then it was a very pessimistic view of humanity indeed.

    That is a good point. And maybe in this sense there is a bit more to the mirroring shots of snakes, birds, rats and other wildlife copulating that we may at first realise. Perhaps the intended contrast here is that the animals are freer to reproduce as they are ultimately only responsible for themselves and, at most, their immediate offspring. Meanwhile, a similar behaviour by humans can in this case be interpreted as immoral, as every new baby adds to the number of mouths to feed and therefore puts more pressure to the community as a whole.

    In Orin’s case, the fact that she has to practically kill herself simply because she has reached a certain age and there are new babies on the way will in fact cause a short-term decrease in the productivity of the village. Despite her age Orin is, after all, still a productive member of the community, which for instance her new grandchild will not be for years to come.

    This line of thinking seems to be a general running theme in the film and is underlined also in the last shot (or at least one of the very last shots) of the film, where Tatsuhei who has just returned from the mountain where he has left his mother to die fixes his gaze on the bellies of the two women in the hut.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    In Orin’s case, the fact that she has to practically kill herself simply because she has reached a certain age and there are new babies on the way will in fact cause a short-term decrease in the productivity of the village. Despite her age Orin is, after all, still a productive member of the community, which for instance her new grandchild will not be for years to come.

    I must admit that Orin’s motivations were something that puzzled me. She clearly wasn’t an old, failing lady who welcomed a ‘clean’ death. She was strong and vital and clearly had a lot still to offer the family and community. She seemed to represent in iron-clad certainty that the ancient wisdom and laws were right, and that she would have a good afterlife if she followed the rules – indeed, she seemed to be actively impatient for the journey. What I couldn’t quite work out was whether we were supposed to approve of her or not – or to be precise, if Imamura saw her as heroine or villain.

    I think perhaps I’m a bit blindsided by the assumption that the ‘sweet old lady’ in a film is a character we are supposed to love and sympathise with – but (as we saw with her ruthless disposal of her daughter-in-law), she was, despite appearances, quite capable of appalling (if pragmatic) behaviour. Perhaps its a Japanese thing, but her character reminds me of the old lady in one of my favourite recent films, Still Walking, in which the ‘grandmother’ character, who initially seems to be a slightly passive woman who dedicates herself to smoothing things in her prickly family and stopping her husband following his worst instincts, turns out to be quite a ruthless and cynical woman in her own right.

    From what I know of Imamura, it seems unlikely that he intended to portray a traditionalist character sympathetically. He certainly seems to have had quite a dark view of Japanese traditional society, without (so far as I know) having a publicly articulated political stance. Its noticeable I suppose that he doesn’t really seem sympathetic to any of the characters – not the loving son, the son determined to pick his own wife for love, or the father who ran away rather than bring his mother to his death – if any character seems to be ‘sympathetic’, its the slightly mad, sexually obsessed ‘smelly’ brother.

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    Vili Maunula

    It’s a good question who the sympathetic characters in the film are supposed to be, if any. I’m not sure I saw any of them in especially positive light either — a stark contrast to the earlier Ballad of Narayama, where they are all kind of agreeable. But maybe that’s what song and dance does.

    The character of Orin is deliciously complex. The fact that she has to break her own teeth in order to make herself look more like someone who will be going up to Narayama is both funny and scary. It also illustrates the pragmatic aspect of her persona, which you mentioned.

    On a general level, I think that the film is not really asking us to approve or disapprove with her actions, or the actions of other characters. The camera just shows us what happens and lets us draw our own conclusions. Or at least I got that documentary vibe from it.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    On a general level, I think that the film is not really asking us to approve or disapprove with her actions, or the actions of other characters. The camera just shows us what happens and lets us draw our own conclusions. Or at least I got that documentary vibe from it.

    I think in this case I’m guilty of putting my own prejudices onto the film – I tend to see the film makers of that period as ‘political’, and hence didactic, so I find myself wondering who or what the characters represent. But thinking back to the other Imamura film I’ve seen and liked – Vengeance is Mine – it is similarly cool and reserved in viewing the characters in a documentary like fashion. So I’m pretty sure you are right about this – Imamura was trying to achieve a neutral, documentary like eye over his characters. The only character who I think escapes this is the smelly brother – despite him being a disgusting individual in some ways, I can’t help thinking he’s viewed by the director with an indulgent eye.

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