Ken Ogata and Sumiko Sakamoto make silence golden in Imamura classic.
The Ballad Of Narayama (Animeigo, 1983) D: Shohei Imamura, w/ Ken Ogata, Sumiko Sakamoto. Rating: NNNNN; DVD package: NNN
This is a movie that doesn’t reveal its brilliance until the end. Up to that point, it’s merely beautifully shot and acted.
In a remote mountain village in 19th-century northern Japan, food is so scarce that only eldest sons are allowed to marry, girl babies are sold or killed, and villagers who reach the age of 70 are taken up Mount Naramaya and left to die. Orin is 69, and it’ll soon be her turn to go, but before she does she orchestrates some key family and village events.
At first, director Shohei Imamura mixes comedy and brutality with a view of humanity as little more than animals, a stance not too far from his 1979 Vengeance Is Mine. But once Orin climbs on her son’s back and they begin their near wordless trek up the mountain, the film turns seriously spiritual.
Imamura pointedly links the villagers with nature and refuses to exalt, condemn or sentimentalize anything in their lives. In the end, the spiritual and the earthbound intertwine in ways you can find comforting, chilling, neither or both and that resonate long after the movie ends.
Animeigo takes the same low-budget but useful approach to extras that it did with its Zatoichi titles. Onscreen print essays cover the film, the director and more. Subtitles come in three versions: complete, partial and captions that fill in cultural background.
EXTRAS Onscreen print information on the film, director, Cannes Film Festival, source novel and author. Fullframe. Japanese, English subtitles.