The Ballad of Narayama (1983)

Dir. Shoei Imamura
Starring: Ken Ogata, etc.

I wouldn’t recommend this to Larri, Joel, Jill, Don, Marc and probably Tony and John. Of the remaining idiots, I think Kevin and Grace might have the best chance of liking this. This is a 1001 selection, and I’m not going to argue too much with the choice.

This is one of those films where my appreciation for it grew as I wrote this review. The film is a slice-of-life depiction of a remote Japanese village, focusing on one family–comprised of a grandmother, her two sons and grandchildren. The film seems focused on crucial life issues, primarily sex and death, and the ways humans—particularly on a societal level—deal with them. In a way, the film reminded me of Ki-kim Duk’s Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring…Summer–shots of copulating animals and insects, suggesting human connection to the animal world and even the hint of the cycle of life, and the spiritual qualities of the film—but less abstract.

For me the film’s value lies in the way it contrasts with the modern society. At first, I felt many of the village practices were crude and barbaric. I’m thinking of the way sex seemed to be the basis for marriage: if a man and woman started having sex (sans any civilized courtship) they would be married; the various ways the yakkos—the second sons prohibited from marrying and therefore having sex—found sexual gratification. There were also practices not related to sex: burying the family of repeated stealing, and the village practice of leaving old people to die in the mountains.

But my attitude began to change. For one thing, I found the honesty and no-nonsense approach to sex refreshing. There seems to be a total lack of intellectualizing sex and therefore lack of sexual hang-ups that plague our more “civilized” society. That is not to say their approach is better—and the filmmakers, for the most part, don’t romanticize the village—something that is rare—but it raised the question of which approach is actually the more humane one (of course, modern society’s handling of sex is not the most humane).

I also liked the way the film depicted the death of the grandmother. Here the filmmaker’s could be guilty of over-romanticizing the practice—although they did show a horrible death experience—but nevertheless there was a beauty in the way the grandmother accepted her death. (I wish I had more time to analyze the final scenes particularly the scene with the bones.)

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