BALLAD OF NARAYAMA (NARAYAMA-BUSHI-KO) (director/writer: Keisuke Kinoshita; screenwriter: based on the novel by Shichiro Fukazawa; cinematographer: Hiroyuki Kusuda; editor: Yoshi Sugihara; music: Chûji Kinoshita/Matsunosuke Nozawa; cast: Kinuyo Tanaka (Orin), Teiji Takahashi (Tatsuhei), Yûko Mochizuki (Tama-yan), Danko Ichikawa (Kesakichi), Keiko Ogasawara (Matsu-yan), Seiji Miyaguchi (Mata-yan), Yûnosuke Itô (Mata-yan's Son), Ken Mitsuda (Teru-yan); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Ryuzo Ohtani; Tartan Video PAL DVD-Region 2; 1958-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles)

"Kinoshita's use of color is spectacular."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz 

Director-writer Keisuke Kinoshita ("The Good Fairy"/"Twenty-Four Eyes"/"Father"), one of Japan's greatest filmmakers, bases this brilliant stylized drama on the ancient legend of Obasute. It offers the distinctive traditional sound of a shamisen and is filmed in the traditional Kabuki theatre techniques and in a masterful way deploys modern filming techniques to the ancient and timeless play. It's a harrowing meditative portrait of love, selfishness, blind obedience, the struggles of humanity and of exploring the traditional Japanese culture values through the barbaric custom presented of herding out the older population in the name of religion and tradition. It's based on the novel by Shichiro Fukuzawa. It was shot almost entirely in the studio (giving it an artificial look), and is visually a feast for the eyes--Kinoshita's use of color is spectacular.

In feudal times, in a remote impoverished mountain village in Japan, those who reach the age of seventy are ushered to the top of the nearby sacred Mount Narayama, the abode of the gods, and are abandoned there to wait until they die. This tale tells of the kind-hearted peasant granny, Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka), who is prepared to make that pilgrimage in the coming new year, the traditional time of the Narayama festival, when she reaches that magical age. But before doing her duty, Orin wants to sort out the affairs of her troubled family. When a messenger comes to her village and tells her there's a recent widow in the next village, Tama-yan (Yûko Mochizuki), who is the same age as her widowed adoring 45-year-old son Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi), they immediately arrange a marriage and granny feels she's ready to leave the world. Living with granny are her three mean-spirited grandchildren and the pregnant wife of the vile (Danko Ichikawa), who can't wait for Orin to exit so the family of eight can divide up her share of the food. in the meantime the grandchildren mock granny because she still has all her 33 teeth, which she becomes ashamed of and finds a way to smash them. When the time arrives, the heartbroken loyal son carries mom to the mountain top and finds it's an auspicious sign that it snows just when they reach the top.

There was a 1983 remake by Shohei Imamura, that garned favor with a Western audience, something this version couldn't. This version is less violent and more like a dream fantasy, and is one I immensely enjoyed. Both versions are top-notch, and which one is better is simply a matter of taste. The haunting allegory uses this ancient tale to warn its defeated post-war Japanese audience of the dangers of blind allegiance, martyrdom to a belief that's questionable, and the harm done to society that the repression of human desires does to others. The intense humanist pic offers a profound reflection on the disappearing values of traditional cultural and the ideological ambivalence of a rapidly changing society to western style modernism in postwar Japan.

REVIEWED ON 3/11/2011       GRADE: A-

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"