This time around Kevin brought us a film that he hadn’t actually seen yet but wanted to finally get around to – Shôhei Imamura‘s 1983 film The Ballad Of Narayama, a remake of the 1958 kabuki-style film of the same name.

So, if you’re us, what’s our favorite number?

The premise of the film is relatively simple – there is a remote village in 19th century Japan situated in a valley below a mountain called Narayama which is worshipped as the local deity.  And like Renewal in Logan’s Run, Narayama demands that all of the villagers who reach a certain age (a generous 70 in this case) must be carried up to the mountaintop to die.  During the winter when the film opens, Orin is 69 and facing the prospect of making her fatal trek up the mountain the next winter.

You know how to whistle don’t you? Just smash your face into the well and it’ll be permanent!

One might be forgiven for thinking that this film was going to be about the critical examination of this custom, with Orin leading the charge to reconsider this injustice.  I mean, it would probably be impossible to make a film with this premise go any other direction today.  In 1983’s Japan, however, it was apparently quite acceptable to make a film that celebrated tradition, however inhumane.  Orin, for her part, is so desirous of partaking in this religious ritual that when people in the village start telling her that she is too young and vital to make the trip, she deliberately knocks her own front teeth out to make herself seem feebler.

In fact, one thread in the film revolves around her eldest son and Orin’s fears that when it comes time he will refuse to carry her up the mountain.  Years before, her own husband had refused to carry his own father up the mountain when he turned 70, which brought shame and disgrace upon the family.  The husband disappeared on a hunting trip shortly thereafter – it was presumed that he had run away out of shame, and Orin considered that the family was better off without him.  However, Orin’s fears appear to have been unjustified as her eldest son finally reveals that he murdered his own father on the hunting trip because of his refusal to carry out the ritual.

A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack

The main thrust of the film would, you might think, have revolved around the journey up the mountain, but in fact that covers perhaps only the final half hour of the film.

Well, maybe a FEW animals were harmed during the making of this film.

The majority of the film actually deals with Orin’s final year in the village as she tries to set affairs in order.  Seen from a perspective afar this seems like a sensible topic for the film, but as they unfold the various anecdotes really do less to illuminate the character of Orin (certainly as far as sympathy towards her is concerned) and more to highlight the primitive brutality of life in this village.  Interspersed at various (usually seemingly random) times the director cuts away to documentary scenes of animals killing each other, eating each other, and mating.  And, in this village, that’s about all that ever happens.  Well, maybe not the “eating each other” part, but the other two basically cover it.  The main side plots have Orin arranging a second marriage for her eldest (widowed) son, helping her extremely smelly younger son finally lose his virginity (at least she didn’t help with his occasional escapades with the village dog!), and luring her grandson’s new (and pregnant) bride to her death by stoning when the remainder of her family are found by the villagers to be potato thieves.  Even barring the main premise of the film, the remainder of the village’s life is enough to make you ecstatic you didn’t live then and there.  And to be honest, that along with the mostly unsympathetic portrayal of Orin as a slave to tradition – to the extent that she will happily kill and die for it – makes the culmination of the film lose any emotional resonance it might otherwise have.

Oh, it’s just a harmless little bunny, isn’t it? Well, it’s always the same. I always tell them…

Surely there’s something profound about the huge pile of bones at the mountaintop.  Surely there’s something striking about the mother harshly saying goodbye to her now-reluctant son at the moment when he needs to leave her.  Surely when he returns and she shoos him away, we should feel something.

…Rosebud…

And surely, after we’ve been told all film that it’s a good omen if it snows the day that one goes up the mountain we should feel some sort of fulfillment for Orin’s journey being blessed by Narayama himself.  But it just doesn’t work.  We’ve spent all movie in a Hobbesian world (“nasty, brutish, and short”) following a nasty woman who in contrast to modern ideals refuses to reconsider tradition.  She dies in the way she wished to die, even when so many others have died likewise against their will.  And finally, mercifully, the movie too is over.

I guess you can say I didn’t really like it.