(1983) dir. Shohei Imamura
Though I’ve studied film and even taken a Japanese Film and Aesthetics class, til now, I’d only seen one of Shohei Imamura’s films, his 1979 film Vengeance Is Mine. Unsurprisingly perhaps, his 1983 film Ballad of Narayama is quite a different thing from my memory of the only other of his films that I’d seen. And it’s been such a long time, I would be hard pressed to draw any parallels or contrast points.
Ballad of Narayama took the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1983, the first of two of Imamura’s films to do so (the second being his 1997 film, The Eel.) And, unsurprisingly, it’s quite a fascinating film.
Set in the 19th Century in rural Japan (though arguably it could have been any time perhaps in the past), it is a story about the struggle for life, survival, procreation, and the acceptance of death. Imamura shows many animals (snakes, owls, rats) eating, copulating, dying, killing one another, a clear metaphor for the human survival, the story of the human creatures and their needs and desires and fight for life.
In the community of the village, barely enough food is produced to keep a family of size, baby boys are discarded and killed, dumped in a rice paddy without much as a blink of an eye. Another mouth to feed is one more too many. However, a daughter can be sold, so therefor is worth more. Such is the basics of survival. It’s harsh. That’s life.
According as well, to the village’s traditions, and in cohesion with the survivalist mode of the populace, when a person live to be 70, they are to be carried by one of their children up to a mountain top to die. Abandoned. But this act is not one of mercilessness, but of keeping the overall health of the community strong. The weak cannot contribute and would drain the potential survival of the clan. And so, as harsh as this seems, there is great dignity in this process as well.
The harshest treatment befalls a small family who steals food from other families. They are caught, accused, proven to be guilty, and then buried alive together in a pit. Something beyond that which a snake or a falcon might condemn an entire family, men, women, children to. But this too seems not much out of step with the world. Not much is made of this, except the additional punishment of the pregnant daughter-in-law who carried another family’s child.
It’s a harsh film, but one with great humanity and beauty to it as well. The people are all very much of their animal selves, needing food, sex, warmth. And the film is not without humor. Quite a bit of humor is played out along the line of the stinky youngest brother, who for I am guessing societal exclusion is unwashed and a virgin, yearning, mastrubating, even buggering the family dog, until his mother sets him up with an older widow to get his burning sexual needs met.
The dignity with which the mother takes her place upon the mountain, amid the bones of her friends, family and ancestors, speaks to the interpretation that Imamura finds this a time in which people are conencted to the world, to one another, to the planet, the mountain (its spirit), and the harshness of life is also part of its inherent beauty.