NR, 98 min.
Director: Keisuke Kinoshita
Writers: Keisuke Kinoshita, Shichirô Fukazawa (stories)
Starring: Kinuyo Tanaka, Teiji Takahashi, Yûko Mochizuki, Danko Ichikawa, Keiko Ogasawara, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yûnosuke Itô, Ken Mitsuda
My final day of Ebertfest 2013 examinations brings us two films about ritual of sorts. The first is the Japanese film “The Ballad of Narayama”, a story that has been filmed twice. The more recent version is the better known of the two, but the first version is an incredibly unique film experience.
Presented with elements from the highly stylized Kabuki theater, Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1958 version of “The Ballad of Narayama” is filmed like a stage production, on sets that make no pretense to be real locations. In the cinematic format, Kinoshita is allowed many more sets than a theatrical production would be able to feature. I did not count them, but there must’ve been over three-dozen different sets in the film. All beautifully rendered.
The story is about the obscure Japanese tradition of Obasute, “the abandonment of old people.” In small villages, when food was scarce, some communities once practiced this tradition, which involved carrying their elderly citizens up a mountain and leaving them there to die once they reached a certain age. This movie follows the story of Orin, an old woman who has reached the age of abandonment. She is a good person and embraces her responsibility of abandonment, although not as soon as the village would like her to. Her son Tatsuhei doesn’t want to take her. Another son can’t get rid of her soon enough.
The movie focuses primarily on Orin and Tatsuhei and his new wife Tama, all of who are good people who accept the traditions of their society even if they don’t approve of them. They a juxtaposed by Orin’s other son, whose greed and avarice show through in his enthusiasm for his mother’s abandonment. There is another older gentleman depicted who resists his fate that his son cruelly imposes on him, not even feeding him before the ritual. The town in general sees Orin as a monster and treats her as such despite the fact that she is still capable of contributing her food gathering skills.