Monday, February 4, 2013

Please Enjoy

Tomorrow, on Tuesday February 5, Criterion will release to DVD and Blu-ray Keisuke Kinoshita's The Ballad of Narayama. When the title was first announced by Criterion a few months ago, I was briefly excited because I thought it was Shohei Imamura's 1983 remake, a film I had seen and enjoyed in college, and which I'd been wanting to see again ever since*. It took me probably less than a minute of intent observation to realize that no, this wasn't Imamura's film, but another, earlier take on the source material, a novel by Shichiro Fukazawa, from 1958. "Oh great, so there's no boobs in this one, is what you're saying," I think I probably thought. But I was intrigued anyway, because the core story (and boy I'd like to be able to read that Fukazawa novel) is a queasily fascinating one, as it deals with the ancient Japanese ritual of ubasute -- the abandoning by a family of their elderly in the wilderness, where they will certainly die, thereby somewhat easing the crush of poverty. For a little while anyway. My memory of the Imamura film isn't that sharp, but I remember it being somewhat wild and nasty and irreverent and weird, which is not to say callous, about the whole thing, this being Imamura, and I could only assume that was his deal -- whatever Keisuke Kinoshita was going to bring to the story, I surmised, it probably wouldn't be that.

And no indeed, it is not. All Kinoshita did with his The Ballad of Narayama is he made one of the most gorgeous, most heartbreaking, most singularly moving and stylistically bold and blind-sidingly wonderful films I have ever seen. My realization that the film I was watching was actually that good was accompanied by a mix of excitement (tempered with melancholy, if you prefer, given the subject matter, but come on, movies this good are exciting) and chagrin, the latter because prior to The Ballad of Narayama, I basically had no idea who Kinoshita was. I'd heard about Twenty-Four Eyes, but didn't know who made it, and probably more importantly I've never seen it. "We don't know what we don't know" is pretty goddamn on the money, I'd say. I don't necessarily regard my ignorance here as a bad thing -- it's not hard to view the whole situation in a positive light, because now I get to watch other Kinoshita movies for the first time. But it was shocking in any case. Criterion does this from time to time, actually; they'll entice you with the big-title releases, like, say, Carlos, and then smack you upside the head with The Phantom Carriage. We must be ever vigilant.

To some degree, the film is presented as a kabuki play, though from what very, very little I know about that form, it's not that exactly -- the actors don't wear any garish makeup, for example. But The Ballad of Narayama does pull from theater, with sets that shift, almost in full view, to make way for the next scene, and narration sung in the joruri style, which, I've learned, is typically used in Japanese puppet theater. Kinoshita also uses plainly artificial sets, painted-backdrop skies, and set illumination that sharpen down into spotlights, or blaze through a red gel when blood is spilled. The effect of all this, if I may simplify it egregiously, is not unlike what an American audience would be used to seeing from the self-consciously melodramatic style of, say, Douglas Sirk. I say this, however, while acknowledging that The Ballad of Narayama is purely Japanese, with no apparent interest in doing anything that would make any of this go down more easily in the West. Which is maybe why this particular film has, up until now, been so hard to see, I don't know, but there's something almost exhilarating about watching a film from a culture very much unlike the one I know, and realizing "This film doesn't care about me, or if I 'get' it, or if its very Japanese-ness will ring false, or weird, to me." To do anything else would be to make a completely different film. I make the Douglas Sirk comparison only to highlight that, like Sirk's films, the artificiality of The Ballad of Narayama is not intended to separate the audience from what's happening in the story, even if that turns out to be the result for some people, but to heighten the experience, and to convey emotion in a way that strict realism couldn't hope to.
That may sound counterintuitive, but oh well. That's the way it is, folks. All I know is, it's devestating to watch the film's central character, an old woman named Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) who, as the film begins, is very close to the age when she will be expected to allow herself to be carried to, and abandoned to die in, Narayama, wander sweetly through this cruel circumstance, so bound by tradition that she claims to welcome her end, to the point that it falls on her to comfort her own son Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi, giving an agonizingly sad performance) who will have to actually carry her in a basket and leave her on the mountain, the theatrical, almost storybook presentation turns this awful, long-gone ritual into something immediate, as though whoever first thought of ubasute, or perhaps more to the point, whoever first told a story about ubasute, had the foresight to understand that however much the particulars might change centuries down the line, the basics never would, so we might as well hammer our metaphors into place now. Because make no mistake, the hopelessness of dealing with and caring for and torturing oneself over what to do with and about an aging parent is all over every inch of The Ballad of Narayama, never more so than in the film's most quietly sad moment, when Tatsuhei lies back on the floor as his family, including his mother, talk casually about what is in essence Orin's upcoming death, utterly unable to embrace tradition at the same time that it's trying to claw his heart to shreds.

There is so much more I could say about The Ballad of Narayama -- Orin's "33 demon teeth," the horror-film tinge of the sequence that "solves" that issue, or the relentless, creeping inescapability of Rokuzaemon Kineya's guitar score (as differentiated from Matsunosuke Nozawa's joruri accompaniment), or how this story -- and this element I do remember, to some degree, from Imamura's film -- starkly contrasts, to extremes, the various ways a family may regard their elder members, or, for that matter, the various ways the elder members, or you, may face their, or your, death. When the time comes, I mean. Orin's sweet acceptance may be a mask beaten into shape by tradition, in other words, and despairing as that possibility is, we're also shown a character who doesn't even have that, who has less than nothing, and so perhaps Kinoshita regards Orin as a figure to be envied, in a sense. Or also -- and this really is a dead end, as far as my purposes for today are concerned -- the idea of narration in films, and how film schools, or screenwriting classes and books and guides, try to drum into people's heads arbitrary rules of what to do or not do, even if what is being degraded is a time-honored narrative tool. Like I say, though, that's some whole other thing entirely. What's important, your one takeaway, is that Keisuki Kinoshita's The Ballad of Narayama is a masterpiece. See it.