The Ballad of Narayama, directed by Keisuke Kinoshita. 1958.
by Mark Fuller Dillon A great challenge of art is how to deal with troubling topics in a way that sheds light on them without scaring away an audience. One solution is to provide a beautiful background without losing sight of the pain and loss in the foreground; this film does that in the most haunting and magnificent way.
The film is essentially a ballad, presented with song and music, not as you would find in a musical, but as a form of commentary. The action takes place in vast, theatrical sets that are gorgeously detailed yet clearly artificial, and the entire production is bathed in stunning colours. Just when you begin to think that nothing else could top the visual splendour of the previous moment, the film surprises you again — and again.
This breathtaking visual beauty serves a tale that would otherwise be too raw, too harsh to consider. The story deals with a peasant community that has taken a severe approach to the question of population: whenever the elders reach the age of 70, they are carried off to the peak of a mountain, and left there to die. This procedure is ritualized in every way, right down to the songs that children sing, right down to the rhythms of planting and harvesting and the movement of the seasons. These people accept their way of life, and pass it on from generation to generation without complaint.
Yet all the same, these people are still human beings, with human feelings and human ties. The burden of leaving someone you love to die, alone, in the cold, is more than most of us could bear, and the film is clear about the human costs of this tradition.
In the end, The Ballad of Narayama provides no maps to an exit, no easy answers to an old human challenge. It confronts directly the ways in which we handle aging and death, and if you have any heart at all, this film will break it.
Yet at the same time, in its honesty, in its compassion, in its overwhelming visual beauty, this film will stay with you. I urge you to see it.