The Ballad of Narayama (1958)

ballad of narayama poster 1958 movie
8.5 Overall Score
Story: 8/10
Acting: 8/10
Visuals: 9/10

Impressive sets and interesting story


Movie Info

Movie Name: The Ballad of Narayama

Studio: Shochiku

Genre(s): Drama

Release Date(s):  June 1, 1958 (Japan)/September 4, 1958 (Venice Film Festival)/June 19, 1961 (US)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

ballad of narayama family

I want him to dump me on Narayama…that way I can get away from my a-hole grandson and his annoying girlfriend

In a small Japanese village, Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) lives with her family. She is sixty-nine and once a person reaches seventy, they leave the village for Narayama where they are left to die. With her widowed son Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi) assigned to carry Orin, Orin finds she is bringing shame to her family due to her young appearance. With hopes of a good death, Orin finds Narayama inevitable…and the end is coming.

Directed by Keisuke Kinoshita, The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考 or Narayama-bushi Kō) is Japanese drama. The movie is based on Shichirō Fukazawa’s 1956 novella of the same title. The film was released to mixed to positive reviews but is now considered a classic. The Criterion Collection released a remastered version of the film (Criterion #645).

The movie and book is based on the concept of ubasute which was a Japanese practice of abandoning the elderly to die. It was rare in practice, but evidence does indicate that it did happen. The Ballad of Narayama is a sad tale about people struggling to survive and the means they go through to do it.

ballad of narayama mountain skeletons

See mom…this isn’t that bad. All your old friends are here. There’s Jimmy, Beth, and Tobey…

The story is about the respect of elders (or in some ways the lack thereof). Orin is “too young” for sixty-nine and even her grandson Kesakichi (played in a despicable performance by Danko Ichikawa) mocks her and her “demon teeth” enough for Orin to knock them out to be more respectable. Kesakichi flaunts his attacks on his grandmother in front of his father who is struggling with the ubasute and is shown to be lazy and soft. Orin doesn’t really resent Kesakichi for his behavior and seems to believe that she can no longer contribute (though she contributes more than Kesakichi to the family). It is a bitter world where everything revolves around survival and food. Food makes or breaks all the characters.

Kinuyo Tanaka (who would have only been in her forties when the film was made) is a likable old woman that makes her scheduled death even more tragic…yet, she resolves herself to it. She follows the rules set out by the village for ubasute even when her son cannot. Teiji Takahashi rages between sadness and doing what is right for his family. He is contrasted to Matayan’s son (played by Yûnosuke Itô) who just wants to do whatever to get rid of his father who is scared of dying and the ubasute. Both Danko Ichikawa and his greedy bride played by Keiko Ogasawara come off as the most callus in their youth and treatment to the older generations.

ballad of narayama ubasute orin kinuyo tanaka

Wait…I changed my mind….come pick me up

The movie is told as a ballad as the title implies and has a story read by narrator throughout the film. This combines with a strange, set-based visuals that sometimes feels like a play in the presentation and lightning and is built around rather grand sets. It is visually a stunning movie that has its own unique style.

The Ballad of Narayama is an interesting film about a practice that seems barbaric. The movie ends with a strange coda of the future where people are coming to just ski at Narayama mountain. There is a sign reminding of ubasute, but the idea that the struggle and fight of the people that came before is forgotten.  There is not a respect for the dead.  The Ballad of Narayama was also adapted in 1983 by Shōhei Imamura.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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