Home Video Hovel- The Ballad of Narayama, by Tyler Smith
Keisuke Kinoshita’s The Ballad of Narayama borrows its style from Kabuki theatre, which at first glance would seem counter intuitive, given the nature of the story. The sound stages, the extreme lighting, and the over-the-top performances would seem to clash with the quiet, subtle story of a woman forced to travel into the mountains after turning 70 years old. Her sad acceptance of this village tradition is the human core that grounds the film in an emotional realism, even in the midst of highly stylized storytelling.
When I first heard the quiet plucking of a shamisen and a one-man Greek chorus singing about the thoughts and feelings of our main character, I was very wary of what was to come. Would the film simply announce everything, rather than show us what was happening? And, if so, should I embrace such a storytelling device? Surely, my ignorance of Kabuki traditions was going to make this a mostly negative experience. With this in mind, I settled in for what I assumed would be a frustrating 100 minutes.
Thankfully, I was wrong. While there are moments that are a bit jarring, as the Kabuki elements of the filmmaking style were first introduced, Kinoshita’s patient and steadfast direction allowed me to settle in and get accustomed to what was happening. By the end of the film, I did not enjoy the story in spite of the Kabuki presentation, but because of it. Somehow, the jarring emotional heights of most of the characters and the theatrical lighting and production design managed to emphasize the lead character’s subtle sadness rather than distract from it.
Much of this is due to a really wonderful, subdued performance by Kinuyo Tanaka as Orin, the kindhearted old woman that has, according to her village, outlived her usefulness. While she remains mostly in good health and maintains strong relationships with her son and her neighbors, she is still expected to be willingly abandoned in the mountains. Nobody questions this tradition and many- including her own grandson- are quite impatient; they think she should make her journey immediately after turning 70. And while Orin has no qualms about her fate, she wants to do it at the right time. That is to say, she wants to get arrive just before the first snow. If she were to leave too early, she would simply putter around on the mountain for weeks. However, if she were to leave after the first snowfall, the journey to the mountain would be difficult. No, it is much better to wait for just the right time so that she doesn’t have to wait too long before freezing to death.
Orin’s dignity in the midst of her approaching banishment and death makes the film all the more heartbreaking. We do see an old man that adamantly does not want to go to the mountain, and we actually find ourselves in the same position as the townspeople. Why is this man making such a fuss? Why doesn’t he just stop fighting and accept his fate, like Orin? That we can so easily slip into the mindset of people so callous is probably a pretty good indicator that, in many ways, we haven’t really changed. It is a very common practice to send our elders to nursing homes and retirement communities, where their declining health will no longer inconvenience us. Surely, it’s not as barbaric as forcing them to freeze to death on a mountain, but, if we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s really just about relieving ourselves of the burden of these people. The methods may have changed, but the instinct most certainly has not.
And perhaps that is why the style of the film works so well. With the beautiful use of color and the abrupt set changes, along with the obvious-yet-intricate sound stages, Kinoshita gives his story a timelessness. By placing it in a theatrical context, it gives the impression that this is an age-old story; one that we all know. We might as well be watching a production of Romeo and Juliet for how familiar we are with it.
In the end, The Ballad of Narayama moves away from its theatricality to remind us that this was a practice that actually did occur. And we remember the scorn with which the townspeople approached their elders. We think of Orin’s long, silent journey to her final resting place. And we shudder at the mountaintop littered with the skeletons of those that had come before. With these things firmly, vividly in mind, the director challenges us to be different, our own convenience be damned.