June 29, 2008

Ballad of Narayama: Classic Japanese Cinema that Shocks


Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ****½

Shohei Imamura is not generally held in the same high esteem as other great Japanese filmmakers such as Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa. Even after viewing all of his later films--his segment of 11-09-01, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, Dr. Akagi, The Eel and Black Rain, I would have agreed with that assessment. Now that I have also seen two of his earlier works--Vengeance Is Mine and the recently-released-to-disc Ballad of Narayama (from 1983), I'm inclined to hold him in similar, if not greater, regard. Narayama, I believe, is a classic film and should not be missed by anyone with a love for cinema or Japan.

With more than 40 awards to his credit, Imamura both wrote and directed his films, choosing his own themes and interests, and making these resonate for moviegoers. In Narayama he adapted stories by Shichirô Fukazawa about the life of a mountain community in the 19th century, in which there is barely enough food to support the villagers thru the arduous winters. The movie, which begins with the discovery of a dead baby in the snow, is full of humor (often bawdy) and sex, and is really about family, community, ritual and the natural world. Even after 26 years, most of it seems utterly fresh.

Sumiko Sakimoto and Ken Ogata (Vengeance Is Mine, The Pillow Book, The Hidden Blade) play mother and son; both are little short of amazing. The bond between them is among the strongest in movie history, and their final scene is one of the most powerful I can recall. The movie offers another scene that may top the starkest and most shocking that you've seen. It goes against all liberal, humanitarian values, yet--when you think hard and deep about what has happened--it makes horrible, justifiable sense.

There is also much beauty in Ballad of Narayama but with no sentimentality. You may, by movie's end, be relieved that you live in the present day. But I will be surprised if you do not stack some of the values and logic of this mountain community up against those of our current times -- and come away with a rather staggering sense of our own smallness.

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Posted by cphillips at June 29, 2008 10:47 PM
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