The Ballad of Narayama (Narayama bushi-ko)

The Ballad of Narayama

All our souls will come to the summit in the end.

First off, the title of this one is The “Ballad” of Narayama, not “Battle”, which is what I thought it was for the longest time, and thus why I thought I’d be sitting through another war film today. This, however, is not a war film; far from it, it’s a period piece, an exploration of a culture and the people that live within it. It’s a mighty full film for what it does, coming in at over two hours and feeling it, but it never felt unnecessarily long, or stretched for the hell of it. That said, I don’t really know why I had to see this one before I died, and I’m really not even certain I was pleased to have seen it at all.

As for plot, this is another example of a film that doesn’t really have a narrative, but instead sets up a situation or culture, and then lets time pass along as usual while the film captures it all. This time, we are left to observe a small village in the mountains, through several seasons, as the villagers live their meager lives and deal with their troubles. Chief among their traditions is one where, when a person reaches 70 years of age, they are carried up the mountaintop to the graveyard of Narayama, where they are left to die. You can figure out whatever reasoning you want for why they do this; all that matters is that it is done, and the film’s denouement finds the central matriarch of the film, Orin, making the climb herself, carried by her first-born son. One thing you should definitely know before you get into this one; there is many a disturbing image to be found here. Some examples include: a man, reviled by the village, sees a couple making love and takes out his own stresses on a neighbor’s dog; an old woman, too healthy for the trip up the mountaintop, breaking her teeth on a stone to display to the villagers that she is indeed old and decrepit enough for the climb; a graphically dead baby being found lying by a creekbed in the snow; several instances of sexual intercourse between the villagers, in all manner of locations, some not entirely consensual; along with plenty others that I haven’t cared to name here. Besides the content, though, there wasn’t much to this one, which given that it dealt with a tiny mountain village in the 19th century ended up working to the film’s benefit. Whether they merely found an excellent location or they actually did build and dress the houses to evoke the time period, the production value on display here is wonderfully used. The one other thing that warrants mention is the music. You can always tell an 80s film, apparently even those from other countries; the synthesized musical score gives it away every time.

There’s probably a lot of metaphor and subtext playing behind the scenes of this one, but taken at face value (which is usually how I try to take films), there wasn’t much reason to sit through this one. All the reasons I could cite toward the importance, or cultural significance, or even the uniqueness of this film would just be a reason unto the film itself, and not any reason with enough weight or explanation behind it to really force you to seek this one out and watch it. If you want to see it, you’ll probably end up liking it, since it’s quite good at what it does. If you don’t, though, I’m not going to try and cobble together an argument toward why you need to see this, because to me, you really don’t.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

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