The Ballad of Narayama (1983; Dir.: Shôhei Imamura)
By Mike Dub
The opening image of Shôhei Imamura’s 1983 Palme d’Or winner The Ballad of Narayama is a somewhat anachronistic helicopter shot. We’re ushered deep into the mountainous recesses of the Japanese wilderness, a journey that reaches further in the past the further from civilization we get. Not only does The Ballad of Narayama take place a hundred years before it was made, but Imamura brings us to a location that seems to have gone untouched in that time. However, rather than indulge us with the grand beauty of unencumbered nature, throughout the rest of the film Imamura showcases the harsh brutality and ugliness of the earth and its inhabitants.
Narayama, the second film adaptation of Shichirô Fukazawa’s highly regarded 1956 novel, takes place in a small, desperate village suffering from a food shortage. To help stem the hunger, villagers who reach the age of seventy are conscripted to Mount Nara, where they will die so that others may eat. The film follows Orin, who at the age of 69 spends the last year in her village preparing her children and grandchildren for her inevitable departure. Among her duties: find her widowed son a new wife, get rid of another son’s ignoble girlfriend, and help her youngest son lose his virginity. It might sound like the kind of quaint, saccharine dramedy Chris Columbus has been torturing us with for decades, but in the hands of Imamura, Narayama is a bold, dark, melodrama that explores the savagery of the human condition. It is more Fassbinder than it is Garry Marshall (at least, I don’t remember Marshall ever using bestiality as a key plot point).
Imamura was an assistant to Yasujiro Ozu early in his career, and while he is known as a New Wave filmmaker, Ozu’s influence is still apparent, both in style as well as Imamura’s resigned compassion for his characters. He regularly employs long takes, and aside from the wandering eye of the nature cinematography, his camera rarely moves. The immersive pacing of the narrative, though, is repeatedly punctured with explosions of violence and abrupt humor. Despite its visual severity, Narayama is edited in a sharp, rugged fashion that expertly weaves the shifting tones and multiple storylines into a cohesive meditation on nature, death, and the ambiguous rewards of faith and sacrifice.
Like Kurosawa’s Oscar winning Dersu Uzala, released eight years earlier, Narayama is a study of humans’ connection to nature in a pre-industrial age. However, while Kurosawa saw purity, self-sufficiency, and individualism in his primitive hero, Imamura takes a decidedly darker view. For him, nature is not harmonious or precious. It is not a nature of frolicking deer and majestic birds, it is a world of snakes, insects, vermin and scavengers. Humans, far from having conquered nature, are merely other animals in the forest, no more romantic than a pair of frogs mating in a pond, and no more righteous than a hawk that feasts on a wounded rabbit.