The Ballad of Narayama (Shohei Imamura, 1983)
In a poor 19th century rural Japanese village, everyone who reaches the age of 70 has to climb a nearby mountain to die. An old woman is getting close to the cut-off age, and we follow her last days with her family.
With a simple but powerful plot of a woman approaching 70 years old who has to climb a mountain to die. She asks her elder son to carry her on his back while having arranged a few things to make sure both her sons have a decent life coming. She tries to arrange to her younger son that smells bad to get laid and hopes that her elder son becomes a nicer man.
While being naturalistic and documentary oriented, The Ballad of Narayama carries great human values and shows a nice presence. The documentary vision of nature cold have presented the story with cold blood. But we are involved in the exhausting climbing and the emotional whirlwind that comes with it. Those long moments of silence are giving such a naked truth for everything that is going on. One moment the son has a vision that his mother went back and we can read his deception when he realizes it was on a projection on his inner desire to not loose his dear mother.
While being a humble experience, the story of the younger brother is funny and gives a nice loosening to the gravity of the situation.
Finally, Imamura has often treated the themes of sexuality and there are many scenes involving sex in The Ballad of Narayama. They are also shot with a documentary style that let them run for a longer time than mainstream films but they are not pornographic in their length or their ways. They present couples in realistic situations and yes they are erotic but not made with bad taste.
The Ballad of Narayama might be one of the best film of the year 1983 and it is not a surprise that it won the Palme d’Or that year. The cinematography by Masao Tochizawa is wonderful and the whole climbing of the mountain is a masterpiece in the film.
This is the film that officially opens Japan-uary and also my first encounter with the director Shohei Imamura. A great discovery and I’ll maybe have to make an event of watching the rest of his filmography.