The same month that the Academy was handing best Foreign Film honors to Michael Haneke’s Amour, The Criterion Collection released another foreign film examining aging and death, Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1958 The Ballad of Narayama. Where Haneke presents his tale realistically, Kinoshita dives headlong into the stylized world of Kabuki theater. I wonder if some of the backlash against Amour was caused by its realistic setting in a contemporary time. Kinoshita raises thought provoking and disturbing questions about death and the place of the aging in society, but he uses a traditional tale set in the distant past. Perhaps it is the distance created through setting and style that make its questions more palatable to modern viewers, even though its ambiguous ending brings the story unmistakably into the present.
The Ballad of Narayama is the story Orin, an old woman, and her family. The narrator tells us that this is a tale of obasute, the abandonment of old people. It is the distant past, and Orin’s family lives in a remote mountain village. Orin is a very responsible and caring mother to her son, Tatsuhei. Tatsuhei’s wife has recently died, and Orin, following tradition, arranges for a recently widowed distant cousin to come be Tatsuhei’s wife. Orin welcomes the understandably tentative Tama into the house and quickly earns her new daughter-in-law’s love and devotion.
All is not well in the village, however. Food is scarce. The law of the village is that when a person reaches 70 years of age, that person is carried to Narayama, the mountain, and left there to join the mountain god. As stated by multiple characters, the village expects the old people to stop consuming resources when they ostensibly have nothing left to return to the village.
Certain aspects of Kinoshita’s film would be welcome by those opposed to euthanasia or assisted suicide. The practice of obasute seems to have a corrosive effect on Tatsuhei’s children. One of his sons laughingly sings songs anticipating Orin’s trip to Narayama. He asks Orin why she waits until the appointed time. The son’s pregnant girlfriend is equally dismissive and disrespectful to the honorable Orin. Following logically from the administration of death to those not thought to repay anything to the village, when a starving family is discovered stealing food, the whole family is brutally slain.
The values of the village even touch the righteous Orin. Despite her age, she has very healthy teeth. Tatshei’s children taunt her, saying she has demon teeth that take away the life of the village. While the charges are clearly the mindless hecklings of insensitive youth, Orin senses that her robust health is somehow unseemly. Perhaps her good health is a challenge to the notion that the elderly have nothing to offer. Rather than bring shame upon her family, Orin, in a shocking scene, knocks out her own teeth. The “culture of death” in her village has driven her to self-destruction.
In contrast to Orin’s embrace of obasute, the neighbor Mata refuses to go to Narayama. At first the village simply ostracizes him, and his family refuses to feed him. In the end, Mata’s son forcibly carries him to Narayama, but Mata’s continued struggle sends them both off a cliff. It would seem that the film provides ample evidence of the bad results of this unnatural ending of life.
However, Kinoshita does not tell a one-sided story. He draws the central figure of this tale as an honorable, devoted, loving, and righteous woman. Her actions throughout the film are selfless and motivated by the long-term flourishing of her son and his family. She works tirelessly to ease her son’s bereavement. Her kindness wins over her new daughter-in-law. Her kindness to Mata keeps him alive long past when he might have starved. It might be easy to see her self-disfigurement as hubris, but even in breaking her teeth, she is looking out for the reputation of the family.
When it is time for Orin to go to the mountain, her demeanor is not one of someone being abandoned. Rather, she is going to her god. Against all the protestations of her son, she quietly insists on following the traditions of the village and her religion. For her, the trip to Narayama is not a brutal ending of her life; it is her ultimate service to the family and to the village. As the snow falls on Orin sitting among the bones of those who have gone before her, her serenity is simultaneously a rebuke to her son who would have her abandon her belief and a comfort to him as he tearfully plays his role in the ceremony. If this were a western, Christian film, I could easily see Orin as a dying matriarch refusing extraordinary medical measures while providing more comfort to her family than they to her.
When Tatshei returns to the village, Tama is there waiting for him. His mother’s loving care for him continues past her death. While the young people continue to sing the disrespectful demon teeth song, Tatshei and Tama stand together talking about what will happen when they get old. As they declare that they, too, will “go up to Narayama,” Kinoshita fades from the saturated color staging to a black and white shot of a modern train pulling into a mountain station where skiers wait. A historical marker at the station reads “Obasute: Abandonment of Old People.” Is the ending a rebuke of Orin’s sacrifice? Is the ending a way to place the practice into the past, suggesting that while that might have been the way of things long ago, we no longer treat our old people this way? Is it a quiet comment that modern life and prosperity has rendered such measures obsolete while still honoring the struggles of the past? Or, as Philip Kemp queries in his essay included in the Criterion Blu-Ray, is it that “since the name survives, with all its fatal overtones, that nothing has really changed?” We struggle to find a solid answer in the film.
Kinoshita’s choice to film The Ballad of Narayama as a kabuki play, with its very stagy sets, brilliantly saturated colors, and ever-present narrator, reminds me of ancient Greek dramas. I suggest to my students that perhaps the ambiguity of many Greek tragedies was an integral part of the growing democracy in Athens. Rather than telling the audiences what to the think, the plays present complicated stories that invite the audience to wrestle with important issues themselves. Kinoshita’s artifice never for a moment allows us to forget that we are watching an artfully constructed narrative. We are constantly reminded that the drama here is of individuals and a community wrestling with how best to survive when resources are low. While the individual’s sacrifice may be noble, what effect does that action have when turned into a legalistic expectation? When does piety turn into injurious? Do individual values always work when extrapolated to the larger community? How do we measure the value of a human life? These are all questions raised by The Ballad of Narayama, but the film does not decide them for you.