Folklore, in its many written and verbal articulations, has played a consistently vital role in the development of modern Japan. Everything from architecture to music to the visual arts to the traditions of the family unit itself have roots in the traditional storytelling and myth-making practices of the ancient Orient. Even Buddhism maintains a unique relationship with customary cultural lore. Eastern cinema, for its part, has had a particularly rich and storied history of marrying the sensibilities of the screen with that of the indigenous texts and tales of Japanese antiquity. Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Kaneto Shindo, Masaki Kobayashi—pretty much any filmmaker who’s worked in the jidaigeki genre has had at their disposal generations of fantastical fables to inspire or integrate into their narratives.
Though less celebrated, key among these practitioners is Keisuke Kinoshita, whose 1958 morality play, The Ballad of Narayama, takes one of Japan’s most chronicled cultural tools, Kabuki theater, as a stylistic blueprint to interpret both a work of literary renown and a legend of ancestral import. And yet for all its solemn reverence (both spiritually and socially), it’s one of the era’s most radical experiments. Shot exclusively on soundstages, save for one brief final scene, the film consolidates two distinct mediums, theater and cinema, into an analysis of both aesthetic functionality and affinity. By not masking his chosen conceptual conceit (and indeed, by heightening it), Kinoshita is free to explore the formulations and possibilities of both modes of presentation.
Based on a novel by Shichirô Fukazawa (who, in turn, was inspired by the purported practice of ubasute, whereby the elderly, upon reaching 70 years of age, are carried up a mountain by their young and left to die as a sacrifice to the gods), The Ballad of Narayama presents a narrative, in contrast to its visual strategy, of streamlined austerity and acute inquiry into the risk inherent to responsibility. As the aging Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) nears her divine destiny, she’s seems all but unconcerned with her fate, instead busying herself with the logistics of her journey and the nuptials of her son, Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi), whom she marries off to local village girl as one last dutiful undertaking before carrying out her ultimate obligation.
Seemingly everyone has investment in Orin’s fortune: Tatsuhei and his new wife, Tama, struggle to accept her lot; Orin’s grandson, Kesakichi (Seiji Kurasaki), and his girlfriend, Matsu (Junko Takada), can barely hide their enthusiasm, singing songs of her impending demise with other villagers; while Mata (Ryutaro Tatsumi), an elderly townsman also awaiting his trip to Narayama, seeks solace with Orin, who unfortunately cannot ameliorate his troubled psyche. When the fateful day arrives, and Orin and Mata are each asked to embrace their final burden, she remains as she always has, calm, almost zen-like, while he’s forcibly tied up and dragged to his judgment. Their fates remain the same, the currents of cultural too much for either to stave off, but their manners of acceptance leave lasting consequence on their children that Kinoshita refuses to pacify for either character or audience.
Bathed in hallucinogenic primaries and exaggerated motifs and staged as a panorama of shifting landscapes and temporal vistas, the film creates dynamically mobile divisions between actor and environment. Abandoning any semblance of reality, Kinoshita playfully constructs a unsettling daydream of pink skies and graven pastures; at one point, the screen bleeds complete red, while at another, a somber processional between Orin, Tatsuhei, and the villages elders glows green as if emblazoned by radioactive ember. But Kinoshita doesn’t exploit this visual artifice, eliciting neither histrionic performances nor undue melodrama. Kinoshita respects the source material and conventions of the culture he’s depicting so much, in fact, that the film plays more like a cinematic elegy than cosmetic theater. When the film cuts in its final scene to actual location footage, it isn’t jarring so much as relieving, a chance to exhale after an exhausting journey.
In 1983, Japanese new wave icon Shohei Imamura would also bring The Ballad of Narayama to the screen, in the process finally familiarizing the West with this parable of familial sacrifice and morality. As expected based on his sensibility, Imamura’s retelling is less lyrical, more severe, but just as unforgettable. The fact that the various cinematic interpretations of the Narayama saga are welcome—the emotional breadth of the pilgrimage, the ethical tumult of the characters, and the allegorical nature of the tradition each providing avenues for ample narrative experimentation—rather than redundant is a fitting reflection of the fable’s lineage itself, ably enduring as artistic artifacts worthy of being passed down to future generations of cinephiles.
Criterion debuts The Ballad of Narayama for Region 1 buyers in a 2k digital transfer of the vivid print restoration which premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, accentuating Keisuke Kinoshita's watercolor palette and shape-shifting lighting schematics. Shadows are rich and black, contrasting nicely with the eye-popping colors, which are sharp and appropriately bold. I don't see a lot of grain, but whatever's lost in texture is more than made up for in clarity. Audio, meanwhile, is presented in a linear PCM rendering, and is clear and balanced. The film's copious use of music is also handled well, the various Japanese string instruments placed upfront, allowing the score to (no pun intended) carry the film's near-wordless denouement toward closure, as intended.
Save for a vintage trailer and teaser, there are unfortunately no digital supplements offered, unusual for a debuting Criterion title. The entire package is typically well designed, however, including the accompanying booklet, which features an essay on the film by critic Philip Kemp.
Keisuke Kinoshita's 1958 restaging of a harrowing Japanese folk tradition is at once stylistically theatrical and emotionally authentic, and an artistic artifact worthy of being passed down to future generations of cinephiles.