When ordinary folks are put under extreme conditions, they are just a small step above animals, stripped off of ideals like dignity, mercy and even love. That’s what I believe Imamura, the leading figure of the Japanese film new wave, conveys in the first 90 minutes of The Ballad of Narayama. But toward the end of the film, the tone unfolds into the most heartfelt ballad of love and sacrifice. The story takes place in a remote mountain village in Japan in the latter part of the nineteenth century. In this isolated community where people are barely able to grow sufficient crops during the warm months to scrape out their existence in the cold winter, food takes precedence over human sentiment. Extra sons are called ‘rat’ because of their burden on food consumption and daughters are traded away to the local salt vendor out of necessity. We also get to see a family buried alive, including a pregnant woman, for stealing food from fellow villages. Besides, the village also dictates that anyone who reaches seventy be carried to the peak of mount Nara by their closest male relative to meet the mountain god and be reunited with lost loved ones.
Just like everyone else who do not question such brutal rituals, Orin, an aging matriarch of sound health who will turn seventy by the harsh winter, is very accepting of her fate. A foretold death does not prevent her from concerning herself with the future of her sons. She takes on the responsibilities of setting her widowed eldest son Tatsuhei with a burly homemaker of the neighboring village; finding a woman to screw her virgin second son Risuke, who turns off all the ladies in the village because he has a terrible body odor ; and lastly teaching manners to her promiscuous grandson. Orin accomplishes all that with the skill of a wise woman who has seen it all and risen above all the egos and bickering. Even when she coldly orchestrates the murder of her grandson’s pregnant wife to for stealing food, it does not take away the fact that she just wants the best for her family.
Imamura remains neutral throughout the first 90 minutes of this fictionalised account of a primitive society by presenting numerous disturbing scenes of emotionless sex, greed and murder. The bleak lives of the villagers are gauged against the heartless nature through raw vignettes of nature – owls, butterflies, frogs, and snakes hunting, copulating or giving birth. Some scenes are obviously not for the faint –hearted – the sexually frustrated Risuke engages in on-screen bestiality with a neighbor’s dog, or a couple is having sex next to a pair of snakes also mating.
The principal theme of The Ballad of Narayama is, I believe, is the not so peaceful relation between human and nature. When we are pushed against the cruelty of nature, we are reduced to dehumanizing acts, as dictated by the law of ‘the survival of the fittest’. But Imamura proves that our species is clearly more than the sum of its DNA sequence in the most poignant ending I’ve ever seen, where the heartbroken Tatsuhei carries his calm mother up the mountain lined up with skeletons of previous victims of this tradition. It begins to snow, signalling that Orin will be well received by God and relieved of all pain. From that moment, the film evolves from a gloomy depiction of human into an exquisite hymn of love and sacrifice, and the grace that can be bestowed on such acts.
With beautiful photography and perfect acting, The Ballad of Narayama is perhaps the most unique and gripping exploration of what it means to be human. Imamura combines Kurosawa’s epic scale and Ozu’s subtlety with his unrelenting vision of human nature to get us face the harsh realities that are not very pleasant. But once we do it, we’ll ultimately realize that “When love and duty are one, grace is within you”, as said by Maugha.