It's not difficult to understand why Ballad of Narayama won the Palme d'Or in 1983. Beautifully filmed and probably just about having a little something for everyone, I felt that this was without a doubt the best of the Shohei Imamura movies shown today to commemorate his passing last year, and on what would have been a celebration of his birthday should he still be alive today.
Like the timeless setting in The Profound Desire of the Gods, Imamura's story, a reinterpretation of the book Men of Tohoku by Fukuzawa Shichiro, takes place ambiguously "100 years ago" within a self-supporting nomad group of villagers atop a mountain, where tribal life, ritualistic and tightly knit, involves a peculiar practice when one reaches the age of 70. There's forceful retirement, where the elderly has to ascend Narayama and live out the rest of the days there. The mountain top is the senior citizen's home, and everyone dutifully follows this without question.
And I'd like to reflect on this particular point before dwelling on the others. Watching Ballad brings to mind the thought of death, and how would one decide how to go meet the maker. There's absolutely nothing worse than anticipating the coming of death, or to the point of sadism, to actually add a catalyst to it. The final 30 minutes is nothing short of powerful, where son Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata) journeys with mother Orin (Sumiko Sakamota) up the incline. It balances the stoic, unspoken bonds (one of the conditions in the ascent is to maintain silence) of love with the coming of the reaper with every step inching closer to the summit where the gods are, set against beautiful mountainous scenery. My words fall short of describing this awesome moment, and it's something you just have to see for yourself. And with that, comes the point of dying with dignity. If I choose to go, that's the way I would prefer too, rather than screaming, kicking up a fuss, and cursing everyone else.
The movie follows through this anticipation of the journey with preparation, and showcases the life of Orin and her family, which is nothing short of entertaining with the many facets thrown in. It's drama, comedy and loads of sex in the veins of the 40 Year Old Virgin, but these are basically there as Orin tries her best to tie up loose ends and puts in place some continuity within her family members before her time is up. Things like taking an involvement to ensure one of her sons doesn't stay a virgin (this bit is just plain hilarious with the way it was developed), and with lots of love, teaching her daughter-in-law how to provide for the family.
It's curious to note that Imamura has plenty of National Geographic like shots of various animals, like snakes, toads, owls and crows, and more often than not, showing them in various stages of copulation, or worse, devouring one another. These shots are used as fillers, as if to either remind you before or after a scene, that when boiled down to basics, we are still animals with our primal instincts still very much intact. And if we're left to our own community devices, mob justice, just like the one in Profound, is often very brutal with emotions running high, and this particular thread, including the cunning involvement of Orin, was one that I found quite hard to sit through - the motivation for a daughter-in-law (one that she didn't approve of) was basically to provide for her own kin, but the stark punishment met out, in my opinion, unforgettable, unforgivable, and very excessive.
Ballad of Narayama deserves every accolade bestowed upon it, and amongst the Imamura movies seen to date, this is something that I would recommend without hesitation. Forget the synopsis which made it sound boring, the real deal is within the film itself.