Written by Michael Clawson
Keisuke Kinoshita’s The Ballad of Narayama, a ravishing, kabuki-styled period drama from 1958, considers such themes as mortality, aging, and tradition through a lens of radiant artifice and theatricality. At the story’s center is Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka), a stooped, compulsively selfless woman just shy of seventy, the age at which the elderly in her secluded mountain community are to be taken by a family member to the local Mount Narayama and left to die. Because of the perennial scarcity of food in her village, where Orin lives with her widowed, middle-aged son Tasuhei (Teiji Takahashi) and greedy, uncaring grandson Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa), the custom of parricide is upheld as a difficult but necessary means of ensuring there’s enough to go around for the younger generations. Not everyone in the community is like Orin though. She has things to accomplish before making her climb – namely, she wants to find a new wife for her son – but she otherwise is calm, even cheery, having made peace with her nearing fate.
The first person we see in the film is not Orin or one of her fellow villagers, however, but rather a black masked, centrally framed narrator, who faces the camera and introduces the movie and the legend on which it’s based. Save for the film’s bracing final shots, The Ballad of Narayama is set entirely on luminous, intricately crafted studio soundstages, its narrative told in the elaborately stylized tradition of kabuki theater. After his introduction, the narrator remains off-screen, and in a wobbly, mournfully singsong voice, describes and comments on the tragic narrative as it unfolds. As seasons pass and the day of Orin’s hike to Narayama approaches, curtains and sets are maneuvered to reflect both changes in setting and shifts in mood. Stage lighting is similarly manipulated in a conspicuous fashion, creating images of dramatic, expressive beauty. In one especially striking sequence, set around dusk, a villager is caught stealing food and violently punished by a mob of his neighbors. The sky takes on a scorching hot pink hue as anger erupts, contrasting with a haunting shade of green that dimly lights the homes and faces of villagers as they gather around the hungry culprit.
More than just a style employed for the sake of visual extravagance, Kinoshita’s patently artificial mise-en-scène is essential to The Ballad of Narayama’s great emotional power. From the gorgeously colorful painted backgrounds of mountainous landscapes, to the staginess of the village’s log structures, the theatricality puts us at a slight remove from the somber, sometimes harrowing events as we follow Orin in her final days. Rather than forcefully envelop us in the hardship and social frictions that define Orin’s world, Kinoshita’s approach creates a space for contemplation about time’s inevitable passage and the value of sacrifice. It’s no spoiler to say that Orin does, in fact, eventually make her journey to Narayama. Fog hugs the ground as her son brings her up on his back, and just as Orin hoped it would, snow begins to fall shortly after she reaches the top. Rendered in beautiful shades of gray and white, the scene is resonant not in spite of, but because of its stylish artifice.
The Ballad of Narayama Trailer
The Ballad of Narayama is currently available to stream on the Criterion Channel.