Inspired by traditional Japanese Kabuki theatre, The Ballad of Narayama makes no effort to disguise its artificiality. Shot almost completely on soundstages, the film retains the theatricality of Kabuki, transitioning its characters between scenes and locations with the drop of a scrim or a shift in the lighting. It's a dazzling effect, the stunning backdrops and set design inviting the audience into its world rather than keeping them at arm's length through the exploration of essential human truths.
|Danshi Ichikawa as Kesakichi and Keiko Ogasawara as Matsuyan.|
Courtesy of the Criterion Collection
Her son does not want to lose her, but her doltish grandson and his piggish wife are more than happy to see her go, making up insulting rhymes about her which they sing constantly. All the while a plaintive narrator sings the titular ballad, keeping the audience abreast of the action and the characters feelings. It's a bit alienating at first, Westerners may have some trouble adjusting to the very particular timbre of Kabuki. But Kinoshita uses the language of theatre to find a deep resonance in this tale of conscience clashing with tradition.
|Kinuyo Tanaka as Orin and Teiji Takahashi as Tatsuhei.|
Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
In Japan during WWII, morality took a back seat to tradition, and The Ballad of Narayama is a haunting reminder of the consequences. Its gorgeous sets and backdrops, awash with vivid color, remain as false as the useless traditions that its characters cling to. There is beauty in tradition, but not at the expense of essential human goodness. While the new Blu-ray release by Criterion is disappointingly bare-bones by the boutique label's usual standards (a lone theatrical trailer serves as its special feature), the transfer is absolutely stunning. As one of the most beautiful, and most overlooked, films of Japan's golden age, The Ballad of Narayama is a fascinating find - a moving portrait of aging and loss that uses theatre as a weapon for truth.
GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)
Now available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.