Quick recap: A rural village in 19th century has a strange tradition of taking old people to the top of a mountain and leaving them there to die.
Fun (?) fact: Second time in a row that I am devoid of facts. So instead, I’ll throw out one I personally learned while watching this movie: a ‘yakko’ is the second born son of a family and is not allowed to marry. A ‘yakko’ is also the first born Animaniac and so doesn’t really fit with the definition I learned.
My thoughts: The first 5 minutes of Ballad of Narayama consist of beautiful shots of a mountain region. The music was woodwind heavy and it felt like I would be watching a nature documentary for the next two hours. Not that I minded, of course, since it would give me a break from some of the weirder things I have seen on this list. And then, two boys came out of their home to pee in the snow. I wasn’t shocked, but it threw off the nature vibe I had been feeling. Still, this seemed like a little serene movie about a village steeped in tradition. That is, until the dead baby showed up in a farmer’s paddy.
Dead babies usually signal some major plot point and I was surprised the movie ran with something so important so early on in the film. It is the yakko, Risuke, who finds the baby and runs around to his neighbors, trying to find who left it there. He seems more annoyed than anything and it wasn’t long before I figured out that in this village, dead babies are more of a joke than anything else. The movie continued on this way, with village life mixed in with graphic sex scenes and violence. It was animalistic the way these people behaved and it bothered me on some level, I suppose, because this felt realistic to the time period. One of the most shocking scenes involves the family Amaya, who have been stealing from other villagers. A crime for sure, but everyone decides that the only solution is to bury them alive, children and all. It made me physically ill to watch them die, but at the same time it also made sense, if you go back to thinking of these people as animals, doing what they can to survive.
Most of the film revolves around day to day life, but the main plot is that Orin, the family matriarch will be 70 soon. This means that her son will carry her to the top of a mountain, where the mountain god will welcome her and she will see everyone who has died before her. Of course there is no mountain god, but Orin refuses to think otherwise and gleefully looks forward to the journey. The last 20 minutes of the film consist of the trek and there are very few words spoken at this time. My feelings changed at this point because I was finally able to see that Tatsuhei, the son, was human. I could see it on his face, the struggle he was going through-not just physical, but mental as well, as he came to grips with the fact that this was the last time he would see his mother. The end of the journey was the most heartbreaking for me, watching Tatsuhei walk through all the bones of the people that had been left behind for the mountain god and faced with mortality in such a brutal way. It is almost impossible to let her go and yet, that is what she wants. Maybe she knew there was no mountain god or maybe she was näive to believe he would come soon, but Orin seemed completely at peace with everything. As Tatsuhei comes back down from the mountain and back to his life, he seems at peace, as well.
Final review: 4/5. Most of the film was shocking but the ending more than made up for it
Up next: Buffalo ’66