“The Ballad of Narayama” is a very beautiful and intelligent Japanese film, telling a story of shocking cruelty. What a space that opens between his origins in the kabuki style and the subject of hunger in a mountain village! The village maintains a tradition of taking those who have reached the age of 70 to the side of a mountain and leaving them there to die from exposure.

Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1958 film tells his story with deliberate wit, employing an elaborate set with paths beside a bubbling river, matte painting for the backdrop, mist on a dewy night, and lighting that blackens the background for dramatic moments. and then bring up the realistic lighting again. Some of the exteriors feature black foregrounds and bloody red skies; others use gray and blue. Like in a kabuki theatre, there’s a narrator dressed in black to tell us what’s going on.

This intelligence supports a story that contains a large emotional charge. Kinuyo Tanaka plays Orin, a 70-year-old widow who resigns because her traditional fate stands in stark contrast to the behavior of her neighbor Mata (Seiji Miyaguchi), who protests loudly against her destiny. Their families’ attitudes were also opposed; while Orin’s son Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi) loves his mother and has no desire to take her to the mountainside, the Mata family has cut off his food, and he wanders the village as a desperate scavenger; Orin invited him in and offered him a bowl of rice, which he would devour.

In contrast to his resignation and his son’s reluctance to carry out his sentence, Orin’s vile grandson Kesakichi (Danshi Ichikawa) can’t wait to finish with the old woman, and begins singing a song mocking the fact that she retains, at 70, all 33 of her natural teeth. . It’s picked up by the villagers, who materialize as a vengeful chorus, their song implying he’s kept his teeth because of a deal with the devil. Eager to qualify for doom, Orin bit hard on the rock and when they saw him again his mouth revealed a bloody stump.

This grainy depiction contrasts with the way the film is structured around song and dance. Although presented in a kabuki style, it is not based on an actual kabuki drama but on a novel. Kinoshita was right, I believe, in presenting his story in this style; its form allows it to be more fable than narrative, and thus more acceptable.

The set and backdrop reflect the changing seasons with lush beauty: Spring, summer, autumn red leaves, then winter snow on the slopes of Narayama. At the top of a mountain, a blackbird perches on a snowy cliff as the camera uses lateral motion to sweep across the desolate landscape. Here he can only sing to himself, for the journey up the mountain has three strict rules: (1) you must not speak after starting Narayama; (2) make sure no one sees you off in the morning; (3) never look back. His obedience contrasts with the adventures of a frightened neighbor, Mata, who appears as soon as his head and feet are tied, is dragged away in protest by his son (“Don’t do this!”).

Orin’s kindness and resignation is at the center of the story. In particular, note his kind welcome to Tama (Yuko Mochizuki), a 40-year-old widow whom he has decided will be the ideal new wife for his widowed son. rock in the river where trout can always be found. This secret was never revealed to his first daughter-in-law. He even wanted to die before his first grandson arrived. He wanted to rid the village of hungry mouths.

Some people will find Orin’s behavior strange. That’s how it is. Perhaps, in the years immediately following the Second World War, he meant to praise Japan’s ability to provide acceptance in the face of dire. You can attach any parallel circuit to Kinoshite’s parable and get it working, but it seems to fit.

Saying that ideas flashed through his mind, he switched between periods and genres, and made 42 films in the first 23 years of his career. His family made him return home, but later dropped his opposition to his career plans. With no college education, he started humbly as a set photographer, and worked hard, submitting one scenario after another to the studio head.

He made plays, musicals, thrillers, musicals, you name it, but he never made another film like “The Ballad of Narayama.” In the juxtaposition of fate and true art, he leaves an indelible impression. Tatsuhei’s second bride, Tama, told him: “When we turn 70, we will go together to Narayama.”

“The Ballad of Narayama” is a new DVD release in the Criterion Collection.

By Raufs