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  Ballad of Narayama, The No Nursing Home For You
Year: 1983
Director: Shohei Imamura
Stars: Ken Ogata, Sumiko Sakamoto, Tonpei Hidari, Aki Takejo, Shoichi Ozawa, Fujio Tokita, Sansho Shinsui, Seiji Kurasaki, Junko Takada, Mitsuko Baisho, Taiji Tonoyama, Casey Takamine, Nenji Kobayashi, Nijiko Kiyokawa, Akio Yokoyama, Kaoru Shimamori
Genre: Drama, WeirdoBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: In this rural village of the late 19th Century, in the land of Japan, there are a group of villagers who are very close to nature and tied in with the seasons they go through every year. They also have a tradition of what to do with their elderly, where the custom is that once they reach the age of seventy years old, they are taken up to the top of the nearest mountain and left to die, as this is seen as the most dignified way to draw your days to a close. But dignity does not appear to be a part of the preceding seven decades, as the citizens often reduce themselves to the level of animals, having sex, eating, and even killing for pleasure...

The Ballad of Narayama had of course been filmed before, in the nineteen-fifties for an adaptation that leaned in on the poetic side of Shichiro Fukazawa's book. You could argue that is what director Shohei Imamura did with his version too, only his idea of poetry was getting as down and dirty with Mother Nature as he possibly could. He was always one to celebrate the rougher characters in his work, and they didn't get much rougher than this, with one featuring the distinguishing characteristic that he stank and the others in the village go out of their way to remind him of this, to the stage it became a plot point later on in the narrative.

Although somewhat episodic, there were threads running through this that justified it as a full-length film rather than, say, an anthology. At the time of its release, it made a big splash internationally as it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in its year, and if it was not exactly Cinema Paradiso or Il Postino as far as tasteful foreign language movies taking off in the West went, it did generate a lot of interest among arthouse fans who wanted something bracing to discuss. Japanese films, which like anywhere in the world had a strong variety of tones, were particularly regarded as notable in the extreme cinema movement, so while a lot of that was trash, good trash too, this had highbrow pedigree.

That did not necessarily mean it was the perfect introduction to the movies of Japan, as it was one of those efforts you had to take a run up to with other titles; indeed, it could be seen as well out of the mainstream on its home turf as much as anywhere else. Should you dive in, you could find The Ballad of Narayama highly offputting, with its players behaving in ways that would, in many other fictions, place them as the villains of the piece, yet here we were invited to revel in how positively horrible they were to each other. Certainly they did not go around with faces like thunder for twenty-four hours a day, but their moods could turn dramatically, as one moment they were cheerily pursuing their libido, and the next they were murdering someone.

One of the most shocking scenes, for many who watch this, is when a family are buried alive by the rest of the village as part of some superstition, which can truly challenge a viewer whose sympathies may have been at least a tiny bit engaged by what they had seen before. Are they supposed to be excused because they, if not ignorant, are committed to a vastly different lifestyle that anyone watching this may have ever given a thought to? And then what were we to make of the last stretch where respected Japanese thespian Ken Ogata carries his mother up the mountain on his back, at her request, to be left to die of exposure as she has become too old? The fact this was her idea does not make it any more alien to those who want to spend as much time with their families as they can in their twilight years, and while it is posed as compassionate, in a bleak bit of horror comedy Ogata meets another pair performing the same tradition, where the grandfather is a lot less happy about the arrangement. Full of nasty, brutish bits like that, it was a window on another world. Music by Shinichiro Ikebe.

Aka: Narayama bushiko

[Available on Arrow Player as part of their Gareth Evans (The Raid) collection. Click here to join the Arrow Player website - there's a free trial available.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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