However you slice up postwar Japanese cinema, Shohei Imamura is one of its premiere figures. Though he worked as an assistant director under Yasujirô Ozu, Imamura possesses a style that is in many ways the complete opposite of Ozu. Early on, he developed an affinity (in his personal and professional life) for the lower classes and with what he saw as their honest engagement with human nature. Now a venerable old master himself, Imamura’s sly observation of mores, values, and customs continues to take off in a variety of exciting directions. Made well after the director established himself but before he became a wise old man who wasn’t supposed to make the gleefully sensual films he does, 1983 Palm d’Or winner The Ballad of Narayama is one of Imamura’s most famous works. Based on a story about a poor, remote village where the elderly are taken to a mountain to die to ease the burden of life on the rest of the villagers, the film is a tonally and thematically expansive one whose narrative elements (ranging from infanticide to bestiality to filial piety) are a perfect springboard for Imamura’s high-art vulgarity.
There’s a startling moment in The Ballad of Narayama where the villagers, who have decided to eliminate a thieving family from their hungry ranks, throw several screaming bodies into a mass grave late at night. The scene and its build-up come off with heightened intensity, the music and camera angles capturing chaos and desperation. But as the villagers fill the grave, Imamura shifts gears drastically: We notice the camera has stopped, the music has given way to the sounds of hurried labor, and in long shot the villagers wordlessly fill in the grave and scurry off to their homes. We’ve been taken out of the moment and, firmly but subtly, have been put into a position to contemplate it. Imamura’s risky balancing act between dramatic immediacy and sociological detachment is what one comes to expect in his work.
The astounding lead-up to the film’s climax follows the protagonist’s journey with his mother to Narayama. The long sequence plays out with very little dialogue and an overall feeling (if not a reality) of pure observation—such as in the son’s quiet, unrushed struggle to carry his mother up a particularly steep hill. Imamura works to gradually set up the appropriate tone for the final scene, where a harsh sense of both resignation and transcendence blankets the viewer like the climactic snow. “Transcendence” is a good word to bring up, in fact. The second half of the film has inexplicable, perhaps supernatural elements. Are these sightings real? Imamura doesn’t seem to indicate that they are at all out of place. It seems to me that we are allowed a glimpse of these “sightings” because we have come to understand their context through the first half of the film. Slowly one realizes that, even as we’re constantly reminded to look at these characters sociologically (almost zoologically, as the frequent intercutting of animals suggests), Imamura has slowly immersed us in their social framework all along. Slyly and powerfully, like Hitchcock’s famous Vertigo zoom, The Ballad of Narayama lures in our gaze even as he pulls us back.