The Ballad of Narayama (1958)

Poster for the film, The Ballad of Narayama (1958).

This was the last film that Roger Ebert added to his Great Movies list before his death in 2013. The Ballad of Narayama is also part of The Criterion Collection, so it may be a stretch to suggest that this film is unknown, but I would think that many people haven’t seen this film given its depressing subject matter. And indeed, it’s a film for which you’ll want to be near to your loved ones so you can hold them afterwards and never let them go.

Although the story is situated locally and remotely in Japanese folklore and history, it would be incorrect to interpret this film as a commentary on the “barbarity” of premodern and pre-Western society. As Philip Kemp writes for The Criterion Collection, the film’s themes are timeless and universal, and its power lies in our recognition of the ways that societal norms break apart under terrible stresses, as “when the gentler side of Japanese existence—respect for one’s elders, reverence for life—was suppressed in the interests of rabid nationalism” during World War II.

The film’s staging is highly stylized and minimalist, perhaps to make the inconvenient truths it speaks about human nature more bearable, i.e. a step removed from reality, as both Ebert and Kemp suggest, but I think also to focus the audience’s attention on the characters’ behaviors and the context around them. The film allows us to understand the internalization of the stigma and bullying that the central character, Orin, faces daily from the village, which leads her to smash her own teeth, and inexorably leads to the film’s sad and haunting conclusion. Orin would otherwise seem “mad” to audiences if not for the exquisite exposition by the filmmaker, Kinoshita, of a society falling apart around her.

I think about this film a lot these days, especially because of climate change, and how this vision of society may not be too far away in the future as resources become scarce and income inequality deepens. I think about how, recently, a professor of economics at Yale suggested that it might be time to consider mass suicide for the elderly. I think about how pundits and politicians in the United States and Canada have been increasingly promoting Medical Aid in Dying (MAID) legislation in recent years, and how that will inevitably target the elderly and disabled for scapegoating, because politicians can’t and won’t rein in the vast hoarding of resources and power by billionaires. I think about recent government actions in cities across the US that target disabled people and unhoused people with eradication rather than support, and how it undoubtedly relates to society’s dwindling capacity (and will) to protect the most vulnerable.

Ebert: 4/4
My rating: 10/10

Be sure to watch the original version from 1958 and not the 1983 remake.