The Ballad of Narayama
In Chekhov’s short story ‘Peasants’, a waiter from the city has fallen sick and takes his family back to his village to be looked after, and wait for death. Almost immediately he realises this is a mistake. He’s just another mouth to feed and before long his own family are making it clear to him he should hurry up and die. The cruelty of survival is similarly the focus of Shôhei Imamura’s stunning film, based on a conflation of two short stories by Shichirô Fukazawa, each of which had already been given separate film treatments. In a remote mountain village, winters are harsh and basic survival is ground out of the earth. As a result, the elderly, on reaching 70, go up the mountain to die. Granny Orin (played by the excellent Sumiko Sakamoto) is a sturdy 69 with a mouthful of her own teeth, but feels her time has come. It is partly out of respect for tradition, partly because of religious beliefs that in that way she will see her ancestors again, but also because of a not-so-subtle societal pressure: she begins to be the butt of jokes and songs about the demon hag who has 33 teeth. The memory of her husband’s disappearance still makes her feel she has lost face.
As in the Chekhov short story, there is a shocking frankness about death and the need for a society on the edge of survival to get rid of its excess baggage, even when these are your relatives. Female babies are sold to the visiting salt merchant, unwanted children are killed on birth. A new born babe that is found in the field sets off a quarrel, not about murder, but about fly-tipping: ‘I don’t need that kind of fertilizer,’ an aggrieved peasant complains. Sexual behaviour is also restricted, with only the eldest son allowed to marry and the other men having to make do with what sex they can grab. Risuke, Granny Orin’s smelly second son, makes do with the neighbour’s dog when the urge takes him.
Imamura unashamedly places the village in the context of a nature that is drippingly red in tooth and claw. As humans hunt, so do eagles, sometimes stealing the same prey; as human rut, so do frogs; as humans are cruel, so we see the murderous affections of the praying mantis. And their survival is genuinely on a knife’s edge. This is not a Malthusian abstraction, or a Logan’s Run dystopia. Each family continually keeps track of the mouths to feed and does the math. They watch as potatoes are counted out and infractions are punished with an appalling severity. ‘I wonder if we’ll survive this winter,’ one villager muses aloud.
And yet for all the harshness and difficulty this is a bizarrely beautiful film, as it follows the village through its four seasons, from winter on. The change of the light, the landscape with the dominating and death-threatening mountain as well as the fire-lit interiors are beautifully rendered, without ever appearing anything other than real.
Before going up the mountain Granny Orin needs to resolve some unfinished business. Her eldest son’s wife has died and he needs a replacement. Stinky Risuke, who uses his breath as a weapon, also needs to have some sex otherwise the neighbours are going to find out about why their dog is so unhappy. The younger son is in a relationship with a girl from a bad family, who are suspected of thieving. The fall of this family is precipitous and is anticipated by the snake that serves as their house god abandoning their hut.
The main relationship is between Granny and Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata), her eldest son. She fears he is soft-hearted, too much like his father, and he is reluctant to let her go up the mountain. It is partly to convince him that she is ageing that Orin bashes her own teeth out, the actress having her own front teeth removed for the purposes of the film with an admirable commitment to realism. However, Tatsuhei is a complex character, troubled literally by ghosts from the past, and although he might demur from carrying out a punishment one day, on another he might well participate. And in the end it will be Tatsuhei who will carry Granny Orin up to her final resting place as the first snows threaten to fall.
Imamura’s achievement here is in presenting a radically different society with values that clash directly with what we today consider universal and inalienable rights. And yet this is not of mere anthropological interest, he is neither romanticising nor patronising the villagers. There is broad comedy and deep tragedy, both the beauty and the cruel indifference of nature, tenderness, humour, love and cruelty. Our understanding of the village is never allowed the privileged position of judgement. The last 30 minutes of the film are as moving and magical as anything I’ve ever seen.