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The Ballad of Narayama – The Criterion Collection #645 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

February 6, 2013 by  



“The Ballad of Narayama” is a beautiful, well-acted and also a heartbreaking film from filmmaker Keisuke Kinoshita about a custom practiced in Japan long ago. Bringing together kabuki and innovative and beautiful sets created in the golden age of Japanese cinema, “The Ballad of Narayama” is highly recommended!

Image are courtesy of © 2013 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: The Ballad of Narayama – The Criterion Collection #645 (楢山節考, Narayama Bushiko)

YEAR OF FILM: 1958

DURATION: 98 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition, 2:35:1 aspect ratio, Color, Monaural in Japanese with English Subtitles

COMPANY: Janus Films/THE CRITERION COLLECTION

RELEASE DATE: February 5, 2013

Directed by Keisuke Kinoshita

Based on the Stories by Shichiro Fukazawa

Written by Keisuke Kinoshita

Produced by Masaharu Kokaji, Ryuzo Otani

Music by Chuji Kinoshita, Matsunosuke Nozawa

Cinematography by Hiroyuki Kusuda

Edited by Yoshi Sugihara

Producti0n Design by Kisaku Ito

Art Direction by Chiyoo Umeda

Starring:

Kinuyo Tanaka as Orin

Teiji Takahashi as Tatsuhe

Yuko Mochizuki as Tamayan

Danko Ichikawa as Kesakichi

Keiko Ogasawara as Matsu-yan

Seiji Miyaguchi as Matayan

Yunosuki Ito as Matayan’s Son

Ken Mitsuda as Teruyan

This haunting, kabuki-inflected version of a Japanese folk legend is set in a remote mountain village where food is scarce and tradition dictates that citizens who have reached their seventieth year must be carried to the summit of Mount Narayama and left there to die. The sacrificial elder at the center of the tale is Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka), a dignified and dutiful woman who spends her dwindling days securing the happiness of her loyal widowed son with a respectable new wife. Filmed almost entirely on cunningly designed studio sets, in brilliant color and widescreen, The Ballad of Narayama is a stylish and vividly formal work from Japan’s cinematic golden age, directed by the dynamic Keisuke Kinoshita.

A long time ago in Japan, there was a custom practiced in poor and mountainous regions during a time of drought or famine.  That practice is known as “Ubasute”, in which a relative carries an elderly family member to the mountain or a remote, desolate area to be left there to die.

Because of the tough times and families were struggling to feed everyone, it was a custom that was mandated by feudal officials.

And the custom has been featured in Japanese folklore passed down from generation after generation.  Songs about a relative carrying an elderly on their back, while the elderly would snap twigs, so the relative will no how to get back home.

The practice of Ubasute would be explored in the 1958  film “The Ballad of Narayama” (Narayama bushiko), written and directed by Keisuke Kinoshita (“Twenty-Four Eyes”, “Morning for the Osone Family”, “The River Fuefuki”, to name a few).

The film was remade in 1983 by director Shohei Imamura, who showed a brutal depiction of how villagers were at the time, the Imamura is a film best known in the West especially for winning the Palme d’Or  at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival.

But while the 1983 film receives a lot of attention, the 1958 Kinoshita film is remarkable on its own, as it is a kabuki-inflected version of a Japanese folk legend.  Featuring beautifully designed sets and wonderful cinematic work from that golden age, it’s one of the highlights in the oeuvre of Keisuke Kinoshita’s cinematic career.

In 2011, “The Ballad of Narayama” (1958) was digitally restored and now the restored version will be released on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

“The Ballad of Narayama” is set in a mountain village where many people are trying to survive due to how bad the years have been to their crops.  In this village is where a wise and healthy 69-year-old woman named Orin (portrayed by Kinuyo Tanaka) lives.

She is greeted one day by an older man who came from the other side of the mountain to deliver news that his sister Tamayan (portrayed by Yuko Mochizuki) is now widowed and because her son is widowed, in several weeks, she can come to their village and be married to her son Tatsuhei (portrayed by Teiji Takahashi).  Which is great news for the family and accepts.

We are introduced to her bratty grandson Kesakichi (portrayed by Danko Ichikawa) who teases his grandmother for having healthy teeth and that healthy teeth means she is eating more than her children and grandchildren.  Which upsets her a little.

Meanwhile, her son Tatsuhei takes the news about his mother arranging him to get married well.  But he is saddened when his mother talks about how she will be turning 70-years-old and she is looking forward to the day when her son will bring her to Mount Narayama, a place where the Narayama God lives.  He tries to tell her that she is too healthy and there is no need for him to bring her up there but she insists that it’s going to happen.

While the news of his father getting remarried, Kesakichi feels there is no need.  Since he is old enough and he will get married to Matsu-yan (portrayed by Keiko Ogasawara), he can be the main man of the house.  Which his grandmother doesn’t believe (because of his immaturity).

During the village festival and the day that Tamayan is to arrive, Orin cooks up the white rice (which they save for one occasion each year).  When Tamayan arrives, she finds out her new mother-in-law is the nicest and kindest woman.  Cooking so much food for her and hearing how kind she is and how healthy she is at 70.  Tamayan takes a liking to her mother-in-law.

But not long after they meet, Orin knows that with Tamayan will be the new woman of the house, because she expects to be brought to Mount Narayama, the fact that many keep commenting to her about the healthy teeth she has, she worries that no one will bring her to Narayama.  So, Orin smashes her teeth on the front of stone object and when she comes back to her Tamayan, Tamayan is shocked to see her mouth all bloody.

As Orin goes to tell her son that his new wife has arrived, she scares the young people of the village.  Prompting Tatsuhei to take her back to the house and find out that his mother has cooked the white rice that they usually save for a special occasion.  But knowing quite well, why his beloved mother smashed in her teeth.

And as the final year with his mother begins to countdown, we get to see how things are in the village.  From one 70-year-old man not wanting to die in Mount Narayama but his son forcing him too, what happens when tough times lead to a man to steal from others and how the villagers respond to thieves.   But also the personal and emotional struggle for Tatsuhei, as he struggles to bring his beloved mother to Mount Narayama to die.  Can he do it?

VIDEO:

“The Ballad of Narayama” is a 1958 film that looks gorgeous thanks to the restoration done in 2011.  Colors look amazing, no flickering, there were light artifacts but I was amazed because the picture quality looked nearly pristine for its age.  This is the best looking version of the film (released in the US) to date!

Presented in 1080p High Definition (2:35:1 aspect ratio), according to the Criterion Collection, this new digital master was produced from the 2011 restoration done by Shochiku studios and Imagica.  For the restoration, a scan was created in 4K resolution on an Imagica IMAGER scanner from a new 35 mm interpositive wetgate printed from the original camera negative; the original negative could not be scanned directly due to excessive damage.  The restoration work was then performed in 2K resolution.

AUDIO & SUBTITLES:

“The Ballad of Narayama” is presened in LPCM 1.0 monaural.  The dialogue was clear through the center channel and I heard no pops, clicks or any problems during my viewing.

According to the Criterion Collection, the original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a sound positive.  Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD.  Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

“The Ballad of Narayama – The Criterion Collection #645” comes with the following special features:

  • Trailer– (3:26) The original Shochiku Japanese theatrical trailer for “The Ballad of Narayama”.
  • Teaser – (2:23) A teaser for “The Ballad of Narayama”.

EXTRAS:

“The Ballad of Narayama – The Criterion Collection #645” comes with an 24-page booklet with the following essay, “Abandonment” by Philip Kemp.

Family.

Filmmakers such Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu,  Mikio Naruse and Shohei Imamura are filmmakers who are well-known internationally for their films based on family and social dramas.  From the parental responsibility of making sure that life is arranged for their children to the disconnect between children and their parents as they get older.

While filmmaker Keisuke Kinoshita was not as well-known internationally as the filmmakers I have mentioned, he was one of the busiest filmmakers in Japan directing over 40 films in 23 years and one of the more popular directors during the ’40s through the ’60s.

While Americans may know of Kinoshita’s work through his film “Twenty-Four Eyes” (available on DVD from the Criterion Collection), his 1958 film “The Ballad of Narayama” is a film known for incorporating kabuki but also introducing many to the concept of “ubasute”.  But also the predecessor that inspired the 1983 Shohei Imamura version that would go on to win awards including the Palme d’Or at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival.

But while the 1983 is the version that most people know, the 1958 version is still a fantastic film and a classic that managed to incorporate Japanese culture such as kabuki (a classical Japanese dance-drama, but in this case, the music is what is utilized as a form of narration) in a film, but yet be appreciated by an international audience.

I enjoyed “The Ballad of Narayama” thanks to the wonderful performance by Kinuyo Tanaka as Orin, the 69-year-old matriarch who knows she will be turning 70 and that she will be taken to Mount Narayama to die.  But for Orin, she doesn’t see this as a death sentence.  It’s how others have died in the village when they turned 70 and the fact that they can join the Narayama God, it’s something that she looks forward too.  So, through this final year, she just wants to make sure that all is set for her son Tatsuhei (in getting remarried) and her new daughter-in-law Tamayan.

Meanwhile, we see the anguish of her son Tatsuhei.  A man that very much loves his mother but knows that due to the custom of the village, even though his mother is healthy, he must take her up to Mount Narayama to die.

And its how Orin would convince him to forget about her.  From giving a positive attitude that she is ready to die, to even going as far as to bash her teeth in, so he won’t worry about her.

But the film is able to capture other situations that take place in the village.  From what happens to a man who tried to steal and how his family is punished.  To how another elderly man tries to fight with his son, as he does not want to go to Narayama.

The incorporation of Kabuki gives “The Ballad of Narayama” its unique feel but also seeing how beautiful and how vast the studio sets were.   There are three moments that stick out in my mind.  One features Orin trying to comfort her son and everything goes black and only a single light shines on them.  Another scene is with Tatsuhei bringing his mother up to Mount Narayama and its amazing just to see how elaborate and how long these sets are.  I was very impressed!  But the third scene was quite scary to see how skeletons were laying on the mountain, as crows just sit and wait for one to die.  I don’t know if this is what people saw back then but I can imagine with many elderly taken up to the mountain to die, the sight of skeletons or one’s belongings must have been heartbreaking.

As for the Blu-ray release, the restoration of this film by Shochiku  Co., Ltd. was amazing.  The film looks nearly pristine for its age and the colors that come out in the Blu-ray release is amazing.  While there are light artifacts, with the 2K restoration and uncompressed monaural track, this is the best version of the film (released in the U.S.) to date.  I wish there was audio commentary included or even a feature on Keisuke Kinoshita but you do get a trailer and a teaser plus a booklet.

While the Criterion Collection release was impressive and the best to come out in America thus far, I have to admit that I was hoping the Blu-ray release was similar to what was released in Japan back in October 2012.  The Japanese Blu-ray release had a 4K digital restoration and it came with 38 minutes of special features, including a 100th anniversary of Keisuke Kinoshita half-hour feature for “The Ballad of Narayama”.

Nevertheless, for its price (releases from the Criterion Collection with less special features are typically priced lower than those with more special features) and its quality, I was quite impressed by the overall Blu-ray release.

While most people are familiar with films such as Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” or Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” (1953) which still resonates strongly even today among Japanese, “The Ballad of Narayama” may feature a custom that is no longer practiced but the situation in Japan among the elderly who feel they are inconveniencing their children still and committing suicide is still a problem in Japanese society.

“The Ballad of Narayama” is a beautiful, well-acted and also a heartbreaking film from filmmaker Keisuke Kinoshita about a custom practiced in Japan long ago. Bringing together kabuki and innovative and beautiful sets created in the golden age of Japanese cinema, “The Ballad of Narayama” is highly recommended!






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