Monday, February 25, 2013


In 1956 the novelist Shichiro Fukuzawa published the story known here as The Ballad of Narayama. The novel was honored with a prestigious literary prize and two classic film adaptations. I first encountered the story in Shohei Imamura's 1983 movie; the Criterion Collection has just released Keisuke Kinoshita's 1958 version on DVD. Narayama is the mountain where the villagers of Obasute take their parents or grandparents when the oldsters reach the age of 70. The old folks are left on the mountain to die of cold or exposure. It's the tradition of a poor people all too conscious of the number of mouths to be fed on very limited resources. Not very many get to Narayama age, one suspects, but Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka, age 48) is on the verge. Her vitality is something of a village scandal. She still has all her teeth, but that only inspires songs about her "33 demon teeth." Orin herself is rather embarrassed by that fact, and conscious of the needs and appetites of younger generations. She's reconciled to Narayama by now, but her eldest son, Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi), isn't. He's no rebel, but he can't help feeling bad about having to carry his mother up the mountain. A widower, he's already felt loss in his life and isn't eager for more. Conscious of this, Orin arranges a marriage for him with Tama (Yuko Mochizuki), a woman from another village, recently widowed herself. These are just about the only three decent people in the story. Tatsuhei's own son is one of the leaders of the songs mocking Orin. He resents his dad getting married again because he wants to get married and a stepmother means less food to go around for a growing family.  The film is the story of Tatsuhei's struggle to reconcile himself to the inevitable, with help from a new love.

In western eyes, Tatsuhei's life looks like an intolerable nightmare. Everyone wants his mother to die, including his mother, who resolves the demon-teeth scandal by breaking some of her choppers on a grindstone. The fact that he feels bad about it makes him our hero, and it also seems like the best proof of Orin's own goodness. Why doesn't he rebel? It doesn't seem to be an option. Instead, the story underscores the desperate poverty of the village, so that the old making way for the young seems like a realistic, tragic necessity. Tatsuhei is a rebel, you could argue, to the extent that he insists on treating it as a tragedy. The alternatives are the dehumanizing rules laid down for the Narayama journey, during which Orin is forbidden from speaking to her son, and the casual mockery of Orin's longevity by the villagers and her own grandchild. Tatsuhei's sensitivity is where humanity survives in the village. By comparison, Orin herself might seem like a brainwashed victim complicit in her own doom if the story didn't contrast her with another oldster, the miserable Mata (Seiji Miyaguchi). His children have abandoned him in the village in advance of the trip to Narayama, leaving him a beggar whom Orin occasionally feeds. Despite his misery, the poor old man has no intention of going up the mountain and puts up a desperate fight with his son when his time comes on the same day as Orin and Tatsuhei's journey. Mata should have our sympathy as he rages against the dying of the light, but despite the cruelty of his children he can't help seeming selfish and cowardly somehow compared to Orin. One suspects that his children's selfishness might be traced back to his own. Unlike Orin, he dies without dignity, but what's the moral of that? We can assume safely that neither the novelist Fukuzawa nor the director Kinoshita endorses death by exposure for the elderly. Neither, however, indulges in what may be a peculiarly western or American belief that we can always change our circumstances to suit us. In such circumstances, the compassion shown by Orin, Tatsuhei and Tama can redeem fatalism a little. Better to feel as bad as Tatsuhei does than not to feel at all. Then at least the trip to Narayama can be a loving farewell instead of the atrocity that befalls Mata. That this might have relevance today is suggested by Kinoshita's closing dissolve to the 20th century Obasute railway station as a train puffs past. It may only mean that Japan has advanced far beyond the wretchedness of the past, but there's also the slightest hint that something more than misery has been left behind on the mountain.

In the pre-release promotion, the Shochiku studio boasted that Kinoshita had shot Narayama almost entirely on elaborate soundstages. It doesn't seem like the sort of thing Hollywood would have boasted of then, but western cinema was not yet that far removed from the sort of celebration of the art of artifice we get from Kinoshita and still get in the U.S. occasionally from the likes of Tim Burton. Narayama isn't the sort of film in which sets are just poor substitutes for locations. Kinoshita aspires to theatricality, moving props and backdrops and manipulating colored lighting for narrative and emotional effect while a kabuki joruri contributes singing narration. Film buffs may be reminded of American experiments in artifice like William Wellman's folkloric white-on-white western Track of the Cat and, above all, of the Englishman Michael Powell's Black Narcissus, which raised new Himalayas at Pinewood Studios. Since Narayama, like Narcissus, features a climactic fight at a precipice, we can imagine that Kinoshita was conscious of Powell's example as well as any number of Japanese precedents. The Narayama sets are impressively crafted and spacious enough for long tracking shots illustrating Tatsuhei's trek up the mountain with Orin on his back. To complain that it isn't real misses the point by a country mile. Just as there's craftsmanship in the scale-model cities and suitmation of Godzilla movies so there's more obvious and (for many) impressive art in Kinoshita's soundstage mountain village. It may not be Expressionist in the familiar movie sense of the word, but it definitely expresses something along with the acting, from  Takahashi above all, and the cinematography of Hiroyuki Kusuda. Compared to Shohei Imamura's earthier, sometimes more explicit version, Kinoshita's Narayama is a grim fairy tale of pictorial and moral grandeur that may haunt any viewer with a heart for a long time.


Sam Juliano said...

"Kinoshita's Narayama is a grim fairy tale of pictorial and moral grandeur that may haunt any viewer with a heart for a long time."

It is indeed Samuel. I couldn't agree with you more and applaud your provocative essay on this stylized and haunting film, a colorful feast for the eyes, and theatrical moorings that as you rightly note do not compromise the film's power. I bought the Criterion blu-ray a few weeks ago. My favorite Kinoshita is TWENTY FOUR EYES, but certainly this one is right up there.

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for writing, Sam. Narayama is definitely part of or parallel to the whole Expressionist tradition in cinema and a timely reminder that realism, whether realized through location shoots or CGI, isn't the sole standard for appreciating movies visually. I haven't seen anything else form Kinoshita but my local library has the Criterion disc of Twenty Four Eyes so I'll try to make time for it soon.