The Ballad of Narayama Review
Winner of the Grand Prix in Cannes in 1983 Imamura’s The Ballad of Narayama, an adaptation of two stories by Shichiro Fukawa, must been quite a shock to an audience unprepared for its dark and often sexual subject matter.
The film primarily focuses on the elderly Orin, a 69 year-old woman living in a village that has for a long time dealt with famine and hardship through a chilling mixture of infanticide and geronticide. As Orin approaches 70 it is clear that she will soon become ‘too old’ to be supported by the village and must make the journey up Narayama Mountain to die. Before doing so she decides to put her affairs in order but it just so happens that this mostly involves the sexual lives of her offspring.
The Ballad of Narayama is filled with black comedy and some really funny moments of bawdy humour as a result of all the sexual adventures (and misadventures) that the villagers get up to but there is never the sense that any of this is being treated flippantly. Cutaways to the ugly side of nature, a snake slowly swallowing a rat for instance, in the middle of a sex scene or an act of bestiality from one of the more simple-minded villagers quickly reveals the tact that Imamura is taking.
At times playing much like a bleak and cynical nature documentary in which humans are the subjects, The Ballad of Narayama is a searing and savage portrait of humanity and the fine line between civilised behaviour and base violent animal instincts. This is not just simple condemnation, there is also empathy for these often engaging and humorous characters. The blend of humour with more upsetting scenes really carries a punch and makes the film both entertaining and challenging.
Ending with a long sequence in which Orin makes her way up the Narayama mountain to die, carried on another’s back, the film takes a tonal turn and this final section is far more lyrical and sombre than what has gone before. This shift is adeptly handled and as the film reaches its beautiful and sad climax it is perhaps quite surprising, following some of the earlier broader scenes, just how moving and powerful it ultimately is.