A meditation on the end of life
- Ballad of Narayama review by AP
I've seen Imamura's later version of this film which appears in 1001 Films to See... I liked that as well, though it has a certain grim factor attached to it and the cachet of having been filmed in conditions that I understand forced the performers into being method actors.
This earlier version of the story is played as if it is a theatre performance. There are painted backdrops and theatrical lighting effects - very good ones - and excellent realistic-looking scenery. The performances are naturalistic, however, and the mother-son relationship at the heart of it I found very moving. This contrasts with the second son's selfishness and the gluttony of his girlfriend. The gluttony is an important element of the narrative as the peasant community is always on the verge of famine and has an understanding that once you reach 70 you have to go to Narayama Mountain to die. An elderly male friend of the mother has not come to terms with this and his desperation and hunger (his family will no longer feed him) contrasts with her dignity and acceptance of the appropriateness of it being her turn to die. She considers herself blessed by being left on the mountain during a snowfall as she will have a quick death.
I liked both films, but for a gentler, more dignified meditation on the imminence of death rather than a sense of the cruelty of life, this version has my current preference.
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- Ballad of Narayama review by NC
A kabuki-inspired telling of a story about the end of life may not inspire many to sit down and watch. They are missing out.
Dying atop Mount Narayama when the age of 70 is reached has become a tradition for the local people, saving resources and saving face. Though why should Granny be bothered about saving face amongst villagers who mock and jeer her? Perhaps the way her neighbour, past 70 and refusing to ascend the mountain, is scorned and spurned by his own family, provides the answer.
Kinoshita expertly catches the conflict of emotions within Granny's family as her time nears. His pace is slow, but riveting and beautiful. Painted backdrops give a theatrical, and therefore intimate, sensation. The story is further explained to the audience via a kabuki-style singer, much in the same way a Greek chorus works.
Kinuyo Tanaka once more demonstrates why she was, and remains, one of cinema's great talents. The film is worth watching just for her performance alone. Everyone else is superb. The final climb up the mountain, and the snowfall at the top, must rank as one of the most memorable moments in all of film history.
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