In Keisuke Kinoshita’s audaciously experimental The Ballad of Narayama, artifice becomes a vessel of truth, turning theatrical illusion into something boldly cinematic. Inspired by traditional Japanese Kabuki theater, Kinoshita’s film — which was shot almost completely on sound-stages — makes no effort to disguise its artificiality, transitioning its characters between scenes and locations with the drop of a scrim or a shift in lighting. Joe Wright attempted a similar approach recently in adapting Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to the screen, using a flagrantly theatrical style to portray the title character as trapped in an artificial world. But where Wright’s staging distanced us from the action, Kinoshita’s stunning backdrops and set design miraculously forge an emotional link to the characters.
The story revolves around the Japanese legend of obasute, the practice of sending the village elders out to die, when they reach the age of 70, so they will not be a burden on their family. In this case, the elder is Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka), who has quietly accepted her fate as part of her duty to her family and her village. Not wanting to be a burden in a destitute village that can barely sustain its citizens, Orin constantly plans for the time that she must leave to climb Mount Narayama, where she will die of exposure like so many elders before her. So determined is she to uphold tradition, she bashes her own teeth in so she can better fit the gossiping villagers’ prejudices, who see good teeth at her age as a sign of greed and vanity. Her son does not want to lose her, but her doltish grandson, and his piggish wife, are more than happy to see her go, making up insulting rhymes about her and singing them constantly. All the while, a plaintive narrator sings the titular ballad, keeping the audience abreast of the action and the characters’ underlying feelings.
A moving portrait of aging and loss, one that uses theater as a weapon for truth.
All of this may be a bit alienating at first, especially to Westerners not used to the particular timbre of Kabuki — but, by telling this modern tale through a classical Japanese theater form, Kinoshita more vividly evokes the sense of conscience clashing with tradition. Nowhere is this more poignantly demonstrated than in the plight of an old man in the village who refuses to go quietly to Narayama and is shunned by his family for being too much of a burden. Tradition is everything to the characters in The Ballad of Narayama, held up above even morality. Only at the end, when the film finally leaves its sumptuously designed sound-stages, is there any hint of eventual progress for postwar Japan. A train barrels, inexorably, toward a place called Obasute — the train of life, hurtling toward death. And The Ballad of Narayama is a haunting reminder of the consequences of morality taking a backseat to tradition; its gorgeous sets and backdrops, awash with vivid color, remain as false as the useless traditions to which its characters cling. It’s a moving portrait of aging and loss, one that uses theater as a weapon for truth.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.