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Keisuke Kinoshita is a hard director to pigeonhole. Tirelessly prolific, he directed forty-nine films, forty-four of them in the first twenty-five years of his career. Later, when the Japanese film industry went into financial crisis in the late 1960s and directors like Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi had trouble getting their projects funded, Kinoshita moved seamlessly into television. He’s best known for his series of josei-eiga (women’s pictures), sentimental romances he made for the Shochiku studio in the postwar years. But he was more versatile than this reputation might suggest. His output also included political drama (Morning for the Osone Family, 1946), satirical comedy (Carmen Comes Home, 1951), melodrama (A Japanese Tragedy, 1953), social history (Twenty-Four Eyes, 1954), period films (The River Fuefuki, 1960), and geisha drama (The Scent of Incense, 1964).
This genre hopping was a tactic Kinoshita developed during his early years at Shochiku in the late 1930s, when he was acting as assistant director to the autocratic Yasujiro Shimazu. Eager to become a director on his own account, Kinoshita bombarded the company president, Shiro Kido, with scripts, often as many as two a month. “As soon as one of my scripts was returned without comment, I’d submit my next,” he once recalled. “I’d submit a tragedy, then a comedy, then a melodrama. It was to make the head of the studio remember the various talents I possessed.” His persistence eventually paid off when, after a stint in the army, he was given his first directorial assignment in 1943. (By coincidence, this was only a few weeks after his friend and near contemporary Kurosawa, working at the rival Toho Studios, was given his own first film to direct.) Over the next two decades, Kinoshita would become one of Shochiku’s most productive and profitable directors.
Kinoshita always evinced a taste for technical experimentation. Carmen Comes Home was the first Japanese feature in color, and in its sequel, Carmen Falls in Love (1952), he employed tilting compositions throughout, intended to enhance the comic atmosphere. She Was Like a Wild Chrysanthemum (1955), where the main story involves an old man’s memories of his youth, tells its tale through misty images within oval vignettes, like cameo photographs. And The River Fuefuki borrows a tinting technique from silent movies to achieve an effect analogous to medieval picture scrolls.
But surely Kinoshita’s most uncompromisingly experimental film is 1958’s The Ballad of Narayama, an affecting meditation on age and mortality lent the dignity of a ritual by the elegant artifice of its staging and presentation. Like many Japanese directors, Kinoshita had previously used material from the kabuki stage (in 1949’s The Yotsuya Ghost Story). Such films, however, tended to be straightforward adaptations. The Ballad of Narayama—originating not in a play but in a novel by Shichiro Fukazawa, which itself makes use of an enduring and well-known Japanese folk legend—did something unprecedented with kabuki on-screen, presenting its drama from the start as theater staged for the camera, with the traditional joruri narrator. All the scenes (except for the very last one) are shot on studio sets that make no pretense at realism, with the lighting simply raised or lowered to indicate transitions between day and night. Kinoshita uses this stylization to mitigate the grimness of his subject—a society so desperately impoverished that, according to ancient custom, its old people are carried up a mountain and left there to die, exposed to the elements, so that their needs will no longer be a burden on their younger family members.
Kinoshita makes clear to us from the very start the narrative conventions he’s using. The joruri, clad head to foot in black and with his face masked, announces the title of this film “based on the legend of Obasute [abandonment of old people],” while clacking together two lengths of white oak—the traditional way to announce to a kabuki audience that the performance is about to begin. His high-pitched, chanted narration and the percussive tones of the samisen (a three-stringed, banjolike instrument) accompany the credits. Behind him, we see a cloth decorated with wide vertical stripes, and as the credits end, this proves to be a curtain, which he draws aside to reveal a stylized village scene, with mountains in the background.
The joruri’s narration is as stylized as the visuals. Often, he tells us no more than we can see for ourselves. At other times, he stands back from the action, offering philosophical commentary. Having been introduced to Orin (played by Kinuyo Tanaka), an elderly village woman whose time to ascend the mountain is approaching, we see her and her family eating while the joruri observes: “The family has a humble dinner; their heavy hearts in turmoil disturb their nightly dreams.” Kinoshita’s film depicts a bleak world, obsessed with the shortage of food and the passing of time, themes that are often linked. Over what seems at first to be a lyrical shot of a field of ripened grain—a sight, one might think, to delight the eyes of these nutrition-deprived villagers—the joruri muses: “The harvest in autumn brings sorrow even as the rice ripens to a golden hue.” It’s tempting to agree with Orin’s son, Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi), when he laments their miserable, wretched life.
But Kinoshita was essentially an optimist, set on finding silver linings to even the blackest of clouds. “I admire beautiful, simple, pure relationships between individuals,” he once remarked. “We must have something to believe in.” In The Ballad of Narayama, the counterpoint to the cruelty, want, and pessimism we’re shown lies in the character of Orin, and in her relationship with Tatsuhei and her new daughter-in-law, Tama (Yuko Mochizuki). There’s a fine moment of communicated pride and pleasure, for example, when the older woman takes the younger out on a nocturnal fishing expedition to pass along her skills; “Nobody else in the village is better at it than I am,” she tells Tama. As played by Tanaka, perhaps the finest Japanese screen actress of the last century, Orin is warm, affectionate, and, crucially to the plot, self-sacrificing, willingly agreeing to the ritual ascent of Mount Narayama. (It’s worth noting, incidentally, that Tanaka, playing a stooped, worn-down woman nearing seventy, was not yet fifty at the time of the film’s production.)
Apart from Orin, Tatsuhei, and Tama, the villagers mostly come across as callous and selfish. Orin’s grandson, Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa), isn’t untypical: he can’t wait to bundle his grandmother off to the mountain, and makes up a malicious song about her “thirty-three demon teeth” (symbol of her supposedly immoderate appetite), which is mockingly taken up by the villagers. He’s abetted in his greed and derision by his lazy, pregnant girlfriend, Matsu (Keiko Ogasawara). And when a desperate man, Amaya, is caught stealing food, the villagers form a lynch mob and kill him and his entire family.
But against these manifestations of the darker side of human nature, Kinoshita continually sets the goodness and dignity of Orin. In one of the film’s most harrowing scenes, she smashes her front teeth on a grindstone, to ensure that she’ll eat less and appear older, and thus be more acceptable to the gods. Her selflessness—she almost has to browbeat the reluctant Tatsuhei to carry her up to her death—is thrown into even greater relief by the figure of Mata (Seiji Miyaguchi), an old man who abjectly refuses to be taken up the mountain and, since his family has thrown him out, is reduced to begging for sustenance. Orin treats him kindly and gives him food, while urging him to follow her example. In the end, though, Mata has to be tied up and, protesting desperately, carried up Narayama by force.
It’s possible to detect a subtext here, Kinoshita using the unbending traditions of this mythical remote village as a metaphor for the harsh moral realities of wartime Japan under its militaristic regime, when considerations of personal conscience often came into conflict with rigid social conformity, and when the gentler side of Japanese existence—respect for one’s elders, reverence for life—was suppressed in the interests of rabid nationalism. The film can be read as an allegory of the dangers of blind allegiance and the sacrifice of the individual in the name of a supposedly greater cause, with perhaps also a side-glance at the intergenerational frictions that were to become an often deplored feature of postwar Japanese society. But more than anything else, Kinoshita’s film stands as an elegiac rumination on transience and the implacable passing of time.
The Ballad of Narayama isn’t without its lighter moments, however. Kesakichi and his girlfriend, for all their heartlessness, are often comic figures. And serious though its purpose is, there’s something slightly absurd about the long fixed-camera scene where Orin and Tatsuhei are interviewed by a row of village elders to gain permission for the trip up Mount Narayama, and are solemnly instructed in the social niceties to be observed in the act of parricide: “You must adhere to the rules of the journey . . .”
Twenty-five years later, The Ballad of Narayama was remade by Shohei Imamura, and it is fascinating to see the way two such disparate directors handle the same dark material. Imamura’s version, though in some ways no less stylized than Kinoshita’s, makes no use of kabuki staging, and it has the intense, often anarchic quality of all of that director’s work; scenes that in Kinoshita’s film are only hinted at, such as the killing of Amaya and his family, are presented unflinchingly by Imamura, visions out of a horror movie. With its visceral impact, the later film has come, to some degree, to overshadow Kinoshita’s more contemplative treatment. But Kinoshita’s staging lends the story a certain distance, a sense of quiet resignation that is perhaps more appropriate to Orin’s selfless acceptance of her fate.
The most unexpected moment in Kinoshita’s film occurs in the final shots. Tatsuhei has come back down the mountain, weeping and cradling in his arms the chair in which he carried his mother. Back in the village, he stands outside his hut and hears Kesakichi and Matsu singing happily inside. Tama joins him and, side by side, they gaze out at the falling snow. “When we turn seventy,” observes Tama, rounding off the film’s insistent themes of fleeting time and mortality, “we’ll go together to Narayama.” Tatsuhei sinks to his knees. And then, suddenly, we dissolve from color to black and white, from the kabuki set to reality, and a long passenger train steams through the landscape toward a station named Obasute—Abandonment of Old People.
As an ending, it’s nothing if not ambiguous. Should we understand that modernity, in the shape of the train, has now redeemed this primitive place from the cruel customs of the past? Or, since the name survives, with all its fatal overtones, that nothing has really changed, that callousness and deprivation persist into the present day? Kinoshita leaves us to decide.
Philip Kemp is a freelance reviewer, film historian, and regular contributor to Sight & Sound and Total Film. He teaches film journalism at the University of Leicester in England.