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Film / The Ballad of Narayama

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The Ballad of Narayama is a 1958 film from Japan, directed by Keisuke Kinoshita.

It is about the ancient and probably mythical Japanese practice of "obasute", in which the elderly were abandoned on a mountainside to die when they reached 70 years old. Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) has the bad luck to be approaching her 70th birthday in a medieval Japanese village, where, due to the extremely narrow margin between life and starvation, the custom is practiced quite aggressively. Once Orin takes care of her last bit of family business, arranging for her 45-year-old widower son Tatsuhei to marry again, she is quite willing to take the one-way trip up nearby Mount Narayama. How willing is she? Orin has all her teeth, so to look more like a toothless old crone ready to die, she knocks out her own front teeth by smashing them against a grinding stone. In fact, the only people who don't want Orin to kill herself are Tatsuhei and his new wife Tama, who are very upset at the prospect.

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The 1958 film was the last movie Roger Ebert added to his Great Movies list before Ebert died in 2013. In 1983 it was re-made by director Shohei Imamura under the same title. That version won the Palme d'Or at Cannes.


Tropes:

  • Ballad of X
  • Captain Obvious: "When three years pass, we get three years older."
  • Crapsack World: Is it bad when old people are schlepped up a mountain after they turn 70 and left there to become food for crows? Yes. Is it bad when the villagers not only kill a man for stealing food, but also kill his entire family of 12? Yes, yes it is.
  • Creepy Crows: They lurk around the bone-strewn mountain clearing, for obvious reasons.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The surprising coda. After the story is over we're treated to a brief epilogue in black and white, and in the modern day, which shows a train pulling into a station. The station is called "Obasute".
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  • Disney Villain Death: Mata fights going up the mountain so hard that his son eventually throws him off the cliff. This enrages Tatsuhei, just back from dropping off his own mother. They fight, and Mata's son eventually goes plunging off the cliff as well.
  • Don't Look Back: One of the three rules about leaving your elders on a mountainside to die, which it turns out is quite the ceremony. After ditching Grandma, you are to go directly back without looking behind. Tatsuhei violates this in the end.
  • Elder Abuse: Jesus. You see, once they reach 70, the elderly are taken to a mountain to die, however, Orin invokes this more directly, as she tries to make it seem like she has a reason to be left up there (as she's healthier than the usual ones) but her son is less inclined to carry on that practice.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Maybe too much dignity from Orin, who is way too cool with freezing to death on a mountainside. Definitely averted with her friend Mata, who has also crossed the magic 70-years-old mark, goes around the village begging for food after his son stops feeding him, and eventually has to be tied up and dragged to Narayama by his asshole son.
  • Happily Arranged Marriage: Tatsuhei is nervous about his mother setting him up with a complete stranger from a different village. But he and Tama hit it off, possibly because she's the only person in town who supports his desire to keep his mother alive.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: The narrator does this on behalf of Orin, singing that "She was the beauty of the village as a young bride."
  • Jerkass: Just about everyone in the town, but Orin's asshole grandson Kesakichi is the absolute worst. He can't wait for his grandma to bite the dust. He makes up a nasty song mocking Orin for still having all her teeth, because that's evidently a bad thing.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Jeering "Orin the crone!" at poor Orin after she smashes her teeth out certainly qualifies.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: The cheery tune the villagers sing about leaving old people on the mountain to die.
  • Narrator: Plays the samisen while commenting on the action.
  • Not So Different: Seemingly the message behind the shot of the train pulling into the station called "Obasute" at the end—that modern-day folks neglect their elders as well.
  • Ominous Fog: Sets the mood as Tatsuhei, at the insistence of his mother and practically everyone else, carries her up the mountain.
  • Retraux: The whole movie is staged in the manner of an old kabuki theater play, starting with a masked joruri who introduces the story, and continuing on with a narrator who comments on the action while playing a samisen. Additionally, the film is shot on obvious stages with obviously painted backdrops.
  • Snow Means Death: It certainly signals game over when the first snow of the season starts falling just after Tatsuhei drops his mother off on the mountainside to die.
  • The Tooth Hurts: The scene where Orin knocks out her teeth against a grindstone is deeply disturbing.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: The whole town forms such a posse when Amaya, a particularly hungry villager with a large family, is caught stealing food.
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