Tuesday 21 September 2021

On demand: "The Ballad of Narayama"

Possibly a bit of a generalisation, but the Japanese cinema appears to have a better handle on death than any other. Recent, revered elegies such as 1998's
After Life and 2008's Departures follow in the tradition of The Ballad of Narayama, a groundbreaking pageant that won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1983. The second adaptation of the 20th century author Shichirō Fukazawa's Narayama stories (after a tamer 1958 predecessor), Shōhei Imamura's film surveys a primitive mountain community where death is but one component of life, to be set alongside birth, marriage, work, the changing of the seasons, family life, shitting in the fields, dead children, torn-up toenails, alleged and actual dog fucking, and songs about pubic hair. Travelling this far beyond the bounds of civilisation permitted Imamura to rub sometimes lubriciously up against all manner of taboo subjects; it's clear that in the wake of Ōshima's In the Realm of the Senses and Empire of Passion - as much revolutionary manifestos as conventional cinematic works - the Japanese cinema was in the process of abandoning some of its customary restraint. Imamura establishes as much early on by cutting between two village youngsters copulating ("oh, my herbs!") and a pair of snakes intertwining. Six feet beneath them, you can sense Yasujiro Ozu - for whom Imamura once served as an assistant - spinning frenetically in his grave.

The net result, however, is defiantly alive: a cinema that is lusty, sweaty and smelly, determined at all costs to gather its rosebuds and sow its wild oats while and where'er it can, broadminded of outlook, all-embracing in its sympathy. The thrusting throws into stark contrast the plight of the village elders, whom tradition states must be hauled up the mountain once they turn 70, so as to be closer to the gods, and spare their loved ones the sight of any degeneration. That's where this Ballad gets serious - in the wordless, autumnal ascent that makes up the film's back end, and which carries us towards an immensely affecting scene as we approach the summit and a final leavetaking. Mostly, the film assumes a kaleidoscopic form, circling around these huts to check in on a set of eccentric, memorable characters; it's filthy soap, one that flaunts the dirt under its fingernails as an index of authenticity. That Palme d'Or now seems representative of one of Cannes' more eccentric years: Monty Python's The Meaning of Life took home the Grand Prix gong, leaving Messrs. Bresson and Tarkovsky to split a Best Direction prize. Yet it's undeniably distinctive, pointing the way both to Imamura's later, similarly boundary-pushing comminglings of sex and death (which honed in on isolated elements of the whole picture here) and a run of midnight movies - films by Takeshi Kitano, Takashi Miike et al. - in which the extremes of sex and death were shown, seen and impressed upon us in no uncertain terms.

The Ballad of Narayama is available to stream via the Arrow Player.

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