Ballad of Narayama Review

Not quite as famous or notorious as the 1983 adaptation by Shohei Imamura, Kiesuke Kinoshita’s 1958 film version of an old folk tale is perhaps closer to the intended lyrical qualities of the piece, while at the same time losing nothing of the story’s heartbreaking depiction of the grim necessities imposed by the most abject poverty. The tale is called the Ballad of Narayama and indeed the opening and linking sections of the film are sung Kabuki style as a folk ballad with a plaintive musical accompaniment, the stylised settings and backdrops, coloured with theatrical stage lighting that highlights the dramatic moods and intent of the piece.

The story is set in a remote mountainous village where it is the custom for old people to depart for the sacred mountain of Narayama on their 70th birthday and give themselves up to the mountain gods. Although she is still quite sprightly, more capable than many of the villagers and still has all her teeth – 33 devils’ teeth according to her grandson Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa), who is starting to resent her presence – Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) is ready to make her final journey to Narayama. A match has been made for her widowed son Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi) with Tama-yan (Yûko Mochizuki), a widow from a neighbouring village, and she has a great-grandson on the way. Despite her value to the family and the community however, Orin knows that it is time for her to leave.

The trip to Narayama however is more than just a cruel tradition. In a harsh world of poverty, where the villagers are able to enjoy pure white rice only once a year at festival time, one more mouth to feed can mean suffering and starvation for the rest of the family and great hardship for the village. The delicate balance of the cycle of life must be maintained and it leaves no room for worthless sentiment. In this scheme of things, even the choice of period to make the final journey must be considered carefully – before the snows so that the road is not impassable, but not in good weather, which would only prolong the suffering of the old person on the mountain. Some try to live outside these laws – an old man over 70 who refuses to make the journey, a family caught stealing food from other villagers to feed their large family – but the villagers are intolerant of such behaviour, demanding adherence to the necessary laws, retribution and penance.

The grim poverty of the villagers, their resignation over their duty and the impact it has on family bonds is fully achieved in Keisuke Kinoshita’s film, without needing to overemphasise either the horror or the sentiment. The virtue of the film’s retention of the ballad nature of the folktale is in the tremendous precision and leanness of the storyline. You don’t need to be told why men and women are widowed at the age of 45, nor why it is so necessary for them to remarry. For Tama-yan, it is the choice between starvation and having a meal provided for her. Every note in the film is similarly perfectly judged, every action is balanced and has meaning and there is nothing superfluous or divergent from the film’s purpose. And rather than being distracting and artificial, the painted backdrops, theatrical scene changes and even the opening curtain on the story only serve to draw the viewer more fully into this harsh world, the bold colours of the stage lighting serving to enhance the nature of the emotions and sentiments.

Yet beauty is also evident in the film – in Orin’s generosity towards Mata-yan and Tama-yan, giving up the precious food for the village Festival, and in her self-sacrifice for her family. There is beauty also in her relationship with her son Tatsuhei, who must carry her on that final journey. With the great Japanese actress Kinuyo Tanaka (The Life Of Oharu) convincingly and sympathetically playing a lead role well beyond her years, and Kinoshita’s precision and balance of the film’s treatment, the result is simultaneously beautiful, thoughtful and heartbreaking.

Ballad of Narayama is released in the UK by Tartan. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, is in PAL format. Although the cover states that the DVD is encoded for Region 2, it is actually region-free.

The sumptuous visuals of the film are given a fine treatment on Tartan’s release. The transfer is correctly converted with PAL speed-up, progressive and anamorphically enhanced. Barring one or two brief sections which show rippling, the print is also free from any serious marks or scratches. The image is however a little soft, noticeably losing detail in wider shots. The colour tones are excellent, showing gradation and strong skin tones, but they don’t have the full saturation they perhaps ought to have. Typically for a Shochiku sourced print, the contrast is not strong and blacks look rather murky, lacking depth and shadow detail. There is also some grain evident in the print, but the transfer copes very well with it, only running into encoding problems with a misty scene towards the end of the film. Overall however, this is a reasonably strong transfer for a 1958 colour film and often quite impressive.

The original mono track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and it’s more than adequate. There is a low level of underlying analogue hiss, but it is barely noticeable and has no affect on the otherwise reasonably dynamic tone evident in voices and music score.

English subtitles are provided and are optional. On the 2.35:1 transfer, they remain outside the image frame in the black border when only one line is displayed, stretching one line inside, one line outside when over two lines. They are clear and perfectly translated throughout.

The only extra feature on the disc is the Original Theatrical Trailer (2:17), which shows richer colours and better contrast than the main feature. The enclosed booklet contains informative Film Notes by Jasper Sharp on the film, the director and the cast.

An important Japanese director, a contemporary of Ozu and Kurosawa, wider recognition for the work of Keisuke Kinoshita is being made through releases like the Masters of Cinema’s Twenty–Four Eyes and now Tartan’s release of Ballad of Narayama. The director’s skill is evident in every frame of this folk ballad, in his balancing of the musical elements, stage settings and lighting, as well as its emotional tone, showing poverty in highly theatrical terms without lessening its overall impact. Tartan’s release serves the film very well, providing as strong a transfer as could achieved with the not quite perfect elements supplied to them.

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