The Ballad of Narayama Review

By the time Shôhei Imamura directed his award winning 1983 film, The Ballad of Narayama, his more radical creative energy had long been free from the shackles imposed upon him during his early career, and he was able to continue exploring the themes that fascinated him most. This latter unwillingness to compromise would have a substantial influence on Japanese cinema, including upon the works of one Takashi Miike, who would later work as assistant director on Imamura’s Zegen, in 1987.

Whilst Miike may have carried forward Imamura’s refusal to compromise, and raised the bar beyond sight, Imamura’s remake of Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1958 film is nonetheless a challenging and often uncomfortable observation of human existence, its interaction with the natural world, and its steadfast and largely unquestioning adherence to what often appear to be arbitrary cultural codes and practices.

Imamura's Palme d'Or-winning picture casts a long gaze at the often stunning beauty of nature, whilst simultaneously capturing its indifferent brutality, and this contrasting observation is laid bare from the opening scene as a long series of sweeping aerial views of snow-laden mountains and forests leads us towards a small village; the mountainous scenery is breathtaking, and the absolute isolation of the collected dwellings is frighteningly acute.

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At the heart of Imamura's observation of nature - and the interaction of man within it - is a portrayal of the cruel practicalities which emerge when resources are limited. The depicted villagers rely heavily upon nature to deliver them the precious resources for their subsistence, yet an acknowledgement of nature's wavering will - resulting in frighteningly unreliable crop returns - has resulted in a shared rule which specifies that village elders, upon reaching 70 years of age, will be transported to the top of a mountain and left to die. Whilst the practice is cruel and painful, the villagers accept it as a natural necessity, and carry out their duty with grim determination. Nature won't provide for the old and the young alike, so the old make way for the young in this ritualised, calculated fashion.

Imamura's village setting, caught in an almost timeless vacuum, also provides substantial scope for the consideration of human life amongst animals, and the director continues to demonstrate his long held fascination with human's place in the animal kingdom. Imamura's film is a decidedly earthy depiction of human existence, and as the villagers are metaphorically and literally laid bare atop of the natural world, they fight, kill, and copulate directly alongside their fellow inhabitants. It's little mistake that, disturbing though it is, the line between man and animal is sometimes blurred beyond recognition - with profoundly disturbing effect. Are we fundamentally any different to the snakes, the birds, and the other animals which mirror our behaviours beside us, as we mirror theirs?

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Whilst Imamura leaves the question open to the judgement of the viewer, The Ballad of Narayama doesn't patronise its audience; the human/animal distinction (or lack of) is a valid question, but the tale also depicts the cultures and rituals of the villagers which are uniquely human - for better or for worse. The core ritual of taking the elderly up the mountain is the central example here, but equally unsettling is the villagers' handling of a local family who have been stealing precious crops from their neighbours. The outcome is planned, contrived, and cruel, in a manner of which perhaps only humans are capable. Life is hard, crops are finite, and punishment is severe.

What's particularly impressive about The Ballad of Narayama is the director's ability to squeeze every last drop of commitment from his cast, and it's this talent for managing his assembled throng which drives such a convincing picture for Imamura. The film is shot to encompass each natural season of the year, with the cast and crew enduring the heat, the wet, and the cold. Even more impressive is that the cast lived in the village conditions throughout, and this surely helped generate the emotions which are etched onto faces as this yarn develops.

The most notable performance of all must go to Sumiko Sakamoto, playing the family matriarch, Orin. Imamura was intrigued by strong female characters, and Orin is certainly an intriguing lead, a steely female amongst physically strong yet often mentally and morally weak men. Adhering to the established rituals and customs, and steering the family through the everyday challenges and complexities is a duty she performs with absolute conviction, whilst never failing to bring her own interpretation and influence to decisions where she judges it to be appropriate. Tough and ruthless where necessary, yet compassionate and sensitive in other instances, Orin demonstrates more highly than any other that most laudable of Japanese traits; the ability to place the needs of the self below the greater good. Whilst others around her may be submitting to the needs and desires of the self, she stays steadfastly true to group ideals and goals. And Sakamoto must be praised not only for her portrayal of the unwavering matriarch, but also for her physical commitment as she punishes herself both in the film, and for the film; those who are familiar with the film will identify the scene in question, and those unfamiliar with the film will wince accordingly when first confronted with it.

Imamura passed away in 2006, but had secured another Palme d'Or with his 1997 picture, The Eel.

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The Disc

Eureka release this installment of the Masters of Cinema series with the bar raised typically high. The package arrives as a dual Blu-ray and DVD combination pack, providing an option for the owners of both formats, and some future-proofing for those who are still to invest in a Blu-ray player. The Blu-ray is encoded for region B, and is presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and in 1080p resolution, so you can expect an accurate and true image.

This is indeed a graceful transfer, and Imamura's 1983 picture looks in remarkably fine form. The colours are vivid from the off, with the snow-layered landscape of the opening scene presenting a convincingly deep blue in the night sky. As the seasons pass the colours remain impressive, with the rich greens of the forest and brilliant whites of the snow providing a stunning backdrop to this observation of isolated human activity.

What's perhaps most impressive about the transfer is the balance that is struck between the vivid presentation of colour in the image, and the respect shown to the source material. The image here is sharp and well-defined to a degree that is impressive given the relative age of the material, and yet the character of the film is allowed to breathe, with the image still showing relatively unobtrusive signs of flecks here and there.

The BD50 disc totals 42.2GB in size, with the main feature constituting 36.6GB of the total.

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Audio

Audio is similarly well served, with the soundtrack presented in Japanese DTS HD Master Audio 2.0. You can expect a clear and accurate representation of sound, with a solid tonal balance. Levels are well handled, and there was no audible hiss or extraneous noise that I could detect. All in all, the audio and visual combination here is a strong one which enables the film to flow freely.

Extras

The allocation of extras is disappointing in terms of volume, being composed of a 19 minute discussion of the film by Tony Rayns, and a selection of four Japanese teaser trailers. One would hope that more material might exist for a film which garnered such critical acclaim and awards.

As always, I would recommend viewing the trailer content after the film itself.

To counterbalance the disappointment in terms of volume, the good news is that the Tony Rayns piece is informed, absorbing, and engaging. Rayns provides a stimulating historical and cultural backdrop for the film, discussing the original upon which this remake is formed, the dedication and commitment of Imamura's cast, and the methods of filming employed by the director, such as choosing to shoot across all four seasons to capture the impact of nature in all of its arbitrary beauty and cruelty.

The package also arrives with a splendid 44 page booklet which contains some rich and vivid promotional stills amongst a Director's Statement (translated by Tony Rayns), an Imamura Interview (conducted by Max Tessier), a Production Diary by Tomoda Jiro - where we discover the genuinely grueling nature of the shoot, and a section called The Legend of Obasuteyama, which recounts a tenth century poem-tale.

Overall

This installment in the Masters of Cinema catalogue presents a very high quality transfer of Imamura's Palme d'Or award winning observation of human nature in a remote and isolated Japanese village. It's an absorbing and challenging picture, and whilst the extras are fairly limited, a decent Tony Rayns piece and a generous booklet make this an essential package for fans of the late director's work.

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Film
8 out of 10
Video
9 out of 10
Audio
9 out of 10
Extras
5 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

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