Ballad of Narayama Blu-ray

Monday, 24 October 2011 05:47

In a valley overshadowed by the imposing, snow-capped Narayama mountain, folk in a 19th Century Japanese village struggle for survival. They lead a simple existence albeit one bound by strict laws. Shôhei Imamura’s “The Ballad of Narayama” dwells on a ruling dictating that on their 70th birthday, the elderly inhabitants must ascend the mountain to meet a god, thereby helping to keep the population under control and reducing the burden on resources, primarily food.

Grandmother and widow Orin Neko (Sumiko Sakamoto) is one year away from turning 70, and despite being able-bodied, caring, resourceful and still a hard worker, she is preparing to embark on her final journey. We join her and the Neko family in the cold heart of winter. Several feet of snow covers everything outside their wooden home, and they make do with dwindling food stocks until spring arrives. As the seasons tick by, the village must replenish its supplies and ensure the next generation is born.

The Ballad of Narayama on Dual Format Blu-ray and DVDTo a modern audience, especially one accustomed to plentiful, easy-access food, heating and mod-cons, the basic lifestyle depicted in this small, remote village is by turns harsh and horrific, but also inviting. The scenery is utterly stunning, beautiful beyond measure. The people know the boundaries of their existence and most embrace what they have with every ounce of their being. They toil hard in the fields and in their abodes, and enjoy the intimacy of their lives and the simple pleasures available to them.

On the other hand, the bad times can lead to terrible events. Their law also states that theft of food is punishable by death, and in one shocking scene a miscreant family is seized and thrown down a deep, disused well before being buried alive. Second and third sons are not permitted to marry and must live with their parents, again to stunt population growth. Daughters are often sold off for food. Desperation and desire lead some to repellent sexual acts.

The tone of the movie flits between light and black humour, gut-wrenching sadness and horror, and intimate, very human warmth. Fifty-something Sakamoto definitely steals the show, making Orin a classic character full of nuance, subtlety and inner strength. She might be bent over like wizened ‘L’ but her maternal powers as well as those related to food gathering and diplomacy are unrivalled. Her family cannot believe she is due to take her trip up the mountain, and in the end she is forced to hobble herself to persuade them. Both character and, amazingly - in an equally committed act - actress remove their front teeth, the former to suggest she is really is frail and her teeth are crumbling.

The film is based on a pair of stories by Shichirō Fukazawa, expertly blended together. The movie is relatively light on dialogue, and the plot is straightforward. Most of the characters are not painted with the broadest of brushes with the exception of Orin and her son Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata – “Vengeance is Mine”), but these uncomplicated components combine to make a sublime whole.

The list of special features that accompanies both formats includes:

  • New, restored transfer (in HD on the Blu-ray disc)
  • New and improved English subtitle translation
  • Exclusive new 20-minute video interview with scholar Tony Rayns
  • Four original Japanese theatrical trailers, including behind-the-scenes footage

You also get a 44-page full-colour booklet containing a 1983 director’s statement by Shôhei Imamura; a newly translated 1983 interview with Imamura conducted by Max Tessier; the newly translated production diary for the film kept by producer Jirô Tomoda; a wide selection of rare production stills; and facsimile imagery from the film’s original Japanese press book.

The piece by Tony Rayns is just as accessible, concise and stimulating as the film itself, telling us a little about the director and his creative output before concentrating on “Ballad” itself. This review covers the DVD version and I can only imagine how beautiful the Blu-ray is given the visual feast even the simpler format affords. In all honesty, the seasonal mountain scenery is reason enough to seek this movie out, never mind the heart warming and heart breaking story that unfolds within it.

“The Ballad of Narayama" (1983) is out now on dual-format Blu-ray and DVD (both discs in one box), courtesy of Eureka Entertainment. The main feature has a running time of 130 minutes approx, carries a ‘15’ certificate and retails for £22.99, or less from

Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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