Saturday, April 27, 2013

Ebert Thoughts ‘13—The Ballad of Narayama (1958) ****

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.

At the time it was made, the movie was considered an indictment of the servitude the government imposed upon the people of Japan during World War II. I believe its message could apply to many of today’s societal issues. There is a line between blind servitude and acting in the interests of everyone. In a society where people are asked to sacrifice for the good of everybody, there are those who will abuse this sacrifice. They are likely to be the same people who call for change once they are asked to sacrifice, or at least they will insist the sacrifice not apply to them. Those who don’t make waves are likely those who should be leading the charge for change. I see a parallel here with the ways many of our religious and political leaders behave and the blind devotion they inspire in their followers. You should not ask people to do anything you are not willing to do yourself. Why don’t you go sit on that mountain and await your death? Or perhaps we should seek another solution.

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