The Ballad of Narayama

The Ballad of Narayama (1983)

Robert De Niro famously put on 60 pounds to play the older Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. Christian Bale lost 63 pounds to play the emaciated lead in The Machinist. Tom Hardy transformed his then puny physique into a solid wall of muscle and sinew for Bronson. And Demi Moore and Natalie Portman both shaved their heads on-screen in, respectively, G.I. Jane and V for Vendetta. But can any of this top the physical commitment of actress Sakamoto Sumiko who, perfectly embodying the 69-year-old Orin in Imamura Shohei’s The Ballad of Narayama (while herself only in her forties), allowed her upper front teeth to be surgically removed for the part?

In her dedication to her assigned rôle, Sakamoto is matched by Granny Orin who, mid-way through the Palme d’Or-winning film, smashes out her own teeth in a bid to persuade those around her that she is ready to ‘go up the mountain’. For in a village dominated by the hardship and hunger of limited self-sufficiency, male newborns are usually exposed, female babies are often sold, thieves are pushed over cliffs or buried alive, and all those who reach the age of 70 must undertake a ritualised winter journey to Mount Narayama, where they are left to God and the elements. Orin knows that her own time is coming, but before she can go, she must settle the affairs of her three sons, sowing the seeds of the Neko family’s future.

And so she sets about finding a lover, young or old, willing to endure for a night the severe halitosis of her youngest son Risuke (Hidari Tonpei) before his sexual frustration gets him caught out with the neighbour’s dog. She tries to ensure that wayward middle son Kesakichi (Kurasaki Seiji) does not bring the wrong kind of woman into the family. And she approvingly passes on what she knows to the new wife (Aki Takego) of her eldest son Tatsuhei (Imamura’s extraordinary regular Ogata Ken), even as she steels him for the responsibility of carrying his mother up to Narayama – a responsibility that his own father (and her husband) Rihei had refused thirty years earlier, before himself mysteriously disappearing.

Combining two novels by Fukazawa Shichiro, The Ballad of Narayama (aka Narayama Bushiko) may be set in a fictional community where everything is ruled both by the cycles of nature and by a harsh constitution of rites, laws and traditions, but Imamura approaches this mythic place with the eye of an ethnographic documentarian, finding in it all manner of observations on the essentials of human life – and death. As his film spans the four seasons of a year, showing the congresses and predations of his characters mirrored in the surrounding animal kingdom, there is plenty of humour in Risuke’s priapic antics, a subdued kind of horror too in the casually regimented cruelty of the villagers’ survivalism, and something profoundly affecting in the final, mystical journey shared between Orin and Tatsuhei, and in the old woman’s gracious self-sacrifice for the good of the community.

And so, in this hermetic world – think Logan’s Run (without the SF, or indeed the run), or the oppressive dystopia of Goto, Island of Love, or Imamura’s own Profound Desires of the Gods – Imamura captures a truly universal, all-encompassing experience, showing the transmission of virtues and vices from one generation to the next in the service of life’s tenacious continuity. How fitting, then, that over a quarter of a century later, Imamura’s own eldest son Tengan Daisuke should come out with a sequel, Dendera, screening at the BFI London Film Festival 2011.

© Anton Bitel