Most cinephiles are familiar with Shohei Imamura’s The Ballad Of Narayama, which won the Palme d’Or at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival and has been a part of the world-cinema canon ever since. Less well known, however, is the 1958 adaptation of the same source novel, directed by Imamura’s also less-well-known countryman Keisuke Kinoshita. Despite telling a nearly identical story, the two versions could scarcely be more different; indeed, it’s possible to view Imamura’s take as a rebuke to Kinoshita’s, replacing florid theatricality with harsh naturalism. Nonetheless, Kinoshita’s version has an otherworldly grandeur of its own, even if it’s not always clear why the director adopted that approach for this material.
At the heart of Narayama is the ancient, rather disturbing Japanese custom called ubasute, in which the elderly, upon reaching a certain age or degree of infirmity, are carried by a relative to some desolate location and left to die of starvation, exposure, or perhaps just grief at having been abandoned. (Historians are apparently skeptical that this is much more than a pre-urban legend.) Kinuyo Tanaka, a woman approaching her 70th birthday, desperately fears the prospect of becoming a burden on her family, as she’s still in robust health—an inconvenient fact regularly ridiculed by her selfish grandson (Danko Ichikawa), who can’t wait to see her packed off to the summit of the village’s highest mountain. Ashamed by her full set of teeth, she bashes several of them out, hoping to appear more decrepit and deserving of her fate. Still, her son (Teiji Takahashi) clearly has no desire to fulfill his assigned role in this ritual, and the bulk of the movie involves Tanaka’s gentle efforts to persuade him that it must be done.
Regardless of whether ubasute was ever a widespread phenomenon, Narayama’s very Japanese emphasis on self-sacrifice and the good of the community, as embodied by Tanaka’s beatific performance, makes it a tricky sell for American viewers, raised as we are in a culture that prizes individuality above all else. On top of which, Kinoshita stages the entire movie as a hybrid of cinema and kabuki, complete with an onscreen narrator describing the action, blatantly artificial sets and backdrops, abrupt changes in lighting to heighten emotion, and the omnipresent sound of the three-stringed instrument called the samisen. Movies don’t come much more resoundingly Japanese than this one, and what it potentially loses in accessibility, it gains in serving as a wide-open window to another culture. All the same, the theatrical conceit, while frequently stunning from a strictly visual standpoint, seems arbitrary to the point of being superficial, just as it did in last year’s problematic adaptation of Anna Karenina. When Lars von Trier set Dogville on a Brechtian chalk-outline stage, he did so for a clear, compelling reason reflected in the narrative’s themes. What Kinoshita intended—apart from aestheticizing misery, as Imamura’s remake implicitly charges—is difficult to say.
Key features: This is one of Criterion’s budget titles, so the sole supplement is a booklet essay by film critic Philip Kemp, which does a pretty good job of rebutting the criticism above.