Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Old Engine of Life and Death

Before he died, the last movie Roger Ebert wrote about in the Great Movies section of his site was Keisuke Kinoshita's 1958 period film The Ballad Of Narayama (楢山節考). It's a movie like an intense nightmare, easily one of the most brutal movies I've ever seen. The fact that the last movie Roger Ebert included in among his reviews of movies he considered great before his death was one about ubasute, an ancient practice in Japan where the elderly were abandoned at a remote spot to die, is somewhat troubling. The concept could have easily been a sentimental mudbath, but Kinoshita makes his focus the fundamental desperation and barbarism of the society that would carry out such a practice. It has people, this movie, not two dimensional raving villagers with pitchforks. It's a real look at what a human being is reduced to by meagre subsistence.

The visual style of the film is conspicuously artificial. With a music and narrator resembling kabuki, filmed entirely on soundstages with backdrop skies and using bright, Expressionistic lighting, the movie achieves a kind of haunting noisiness. The story follows Orin, a woman approaching her seventieth birthday, at which point it is traditional in her village for a person to be taken by his or her kin to Narayama, a mountain a few valleys distant, and left to die of starvation or exposure. Orin hopes to reach Narayama when the snows begin to fall.

We meet an old man, Mata, who has evaded going to Narayama and as a consequence his children don't feed him. He bursts into Orin's home when he smells the rice she can afford to cook only once a year and begins shoving handfuls into his mouth. But Orin graciously gives him a bowl.

Orin is not resisting her destiny, she speaks of how she remembers her parents and grandparents going to Narayama, and looks forward to no longer burdening her son and grandchildren. She says her mind is at ease when a woman arrives from another village to marry her son, so someone will be there to cook and clean when she's gone. The only thing that really seems to trouble Orin is her teeth.

The narrator explains how in her youth Orin had been a bride of exceptional beauty and how no-one had ever said anything against her. It troubles her now that she's an old woman who still has thirty three teeth, she feels impertinent for having them, particularly after her grandson makes up a song he gets the rest of the village to sing about how Orin had made a bargain with a demon for her teeth. So, when her son's new wife arrives, Orin bites down hard on the edge of a stone bowl, relieving herself of her front teeth.

Her grandson and his pregnant girlfriend make no attempt to conceal their wish that the old woman should leave for Narayama as soon as possible but Orin's son and new daughter-in-law fear that quickly approaching day. At the beginning of the film, Orin greets a friend from another village who tells her of a forty five year old woman who'd recently been widowed--forty five also being the age of Orin's son, and the two agree that the new widow would be a perfect wife for Orin's son. It's so arranged for the woman to travel to Orin's village after the grieving period is over.

When Orin and the woman meet, the woman nervously takes but then vociferously gobbles up the rice Orin offers her. Any affinity between the woman and Orin's son is never even mentioned, everyone understands implicitly the two people have to be married in order to ensure their survival. The woman apologises for being late because she had waited for an escort that had failed to come. Orin says if she'd known, she'd have come to escort the woman herself, to which the woman replies that she would have carried Orin on her back for the return journey. The two clasp each other's arms as they each recognise in the other someone whose nature is to sacrifice herself for the comfort of others, and each is glad to have become part of the other's family.

When one man's caught stealing, his entire family, including the small children, and all their food, are brought to the centre of the village in the middle of the night to receive "the judgement of Narayama". The food is distributed amongst the other villagers and the entire family is eventually slaughtered.

And Orin, we see, approves of this. There may have been some passive aggression in the way she smiled at the village with her bloody, newly toothless mouth, but at the bottom, Orin is a woman of this culture and she holds no qualms about what she needs to do even as she exhibits some disapproval for the crassness of her grandson. One remembers what Kikuchiyo said in Seven Samurai about how farmers are the nastiest, meanest people alive.

Twitter Sonnet #500

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Or the chief mate Starbuck ain't no Quaker.

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