The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Asian Films list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
The opening shot of Shohei Imamura’s Narayama bushiko is cunning. Accompanying a caption that sets the action in nineteenth-century northern Japan, the camera reveals vast terrain: miles of snow-covered trees. It’s a helicopter shot!—and the visual implication of this modern contraption draws our attention to something else that might otherwise have remained “invisible”: the camera it is transporting. All this has the effect of wittily collapsing the distance in time of about a hundred years. Imamura’s study of greed, the sex impulse and the survival instinct in a remote, wintry, primitive community thus will be, in reality, a reflection on how these elements still structure human behavior and activity.
Orin is 69. At 70, elders in this village trek to Mount Narayama to die, thereby relieving the impoverished community of their burden. It is time for Orin to put her hut in order. Son Tatsuhei must get a wife!
The hard work of farming, as well as other aspects of life in this community (such as Tatsuhei’s sexual encounters), are interrupted by inserted closeups of Nature: bugs and snakes copulating; a snake, later an owl, devouring a rodent. The villagers are always one bad harvest away from disaster, but winter keeps some of them warmer than others. Food, scarce, is precious, and when one of them steals crops the village comes together as an avenging mob, burying alive the offender and his entire family. Otherwise, “we will get no sleep,” “he will steal again.”
The film’s last movement enchants. Orin has turned 70, and Tatsuhei carries her, piggyback, to her last end. She accepts this, as she must; wild animals cross their silent path. Spirits animate a tree, bringing it to sparkling life. It is the spirit of Orin. It is the ballad of Narayama.
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