You are in the village

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These two young go-getters are writing their names in the snow, which isn’t easy in Japanese. It takes years of calligraphic tuition.

The movie is Shohei Imamura’s THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA (it’s not like any ballad I ever heard) and I thought I’d enjoy the snow scenes, since Mother Nature hasn’t provided us with any good ones in Edinburgh so far this winter.

In fact, the movie is resplendent with nature footage from every season, though the human drama inclines to the grim. Though not without humour, also grim. All I knew going in was the premise than in this mountain village, when people get to be seventy they go up into the mountains in winter to perish, this relieving their relatives of the burden of supporting them. It’s like a sclerotic LOGAN’S RUN (which also has some nice snow scenes, including AN ICE CAVE with A ROBOT! The most Christmassy thing ever!)

A dead baby turns up in a muddy field; one oldster has brought shame on his family by apparently running off rather than doing his duty to the mountain gods; his wife is so keen to make up for this that she’s stoically chipping away at her teeth trying to make herself decrepit sooner; one family are caught pilfering from the others and meet a terrible fate; a chubby virgin with appalling halitosis tries to seduce the neighbours’ dog. Much of this is observed with a slightly wry detachment, making it less unbearable to watch than you’d think. And it’s all rendered perversely beautiful by the photography and music.

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Imamura intercuts his shots of animals copulating, giving birth and killing one another with less documentary material of his human characters doing likewise. The effect is NOT AT ALL like the love scene in RYAN’S DAUGHTER, for reasons which may be illuminating to examine. Dispensing with the fact that David Lean built hs forest in a studio space, an incredible feat in itself, there’s the deeper meaning of the juxtaposition of man and nature in each filmmaker. In Lean’s work, weather and nature are either a crucible to test human character, as is largely the case in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and a bit in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO and maybe even the caves in A PASSAGE TO INDIA have mutated from their more mysterious purpose in E.M. Forster’s book to assume this role, albeit in a somewhat perverse and enigmatic way; or else they are anthropomorphic, mirroring the emotions of human characters. We see this in particular with the thorns which entwine together to suggest the mother’s birth pains in OLIVER TWIST, and we see it in the aforementioned arboreal love scene in RYAN’S. In this sense, Lean is Shakespearian, with weather serving as an emotional barometer.

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Imamura’s point is at once more blunt and simple, and more definitely true — he shows that humans and animals are in many ways similar, driven by lusts and appetites but also by the need to fit into their surroundings. Cutting from a love scene to copulating frogs may seem obvious, and certainly unpoetic, but it’s also an honest observation, and not one that lends itself to a more subtle approach.

And then Imamura climaxes the film with the ascent of the mountain by mother and son, in almost total silence (as decreed by mountain law), for forty-five minutes, an astonishing bit of epic drama, ending amid the vast open-air ossuary in a parting that’s genuinely moving. Neither character has been entirely endearing — both are, in fact, effectively murderers — but the unspoken farewell is extraordinarily powerful. And then there’s the most impressive bit of bird-wrangling since Hitchcock.

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The movie was a gift from my pals at Masters of Cinema, and is available on Dual Format Blu-ray and DVD here ~
The Ballad of Narayama (1983) (Masters of Cinema) [Dual Format Blu-ray & DVD]

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2 Responses to “You are in the village”

  1. Saw this as part of an Imamura series years ago. Seeing a good number of his films together was a bit overwhelming. As you say, there is humor present, but the guy wasn’t warm and fuzzy. It sometimes felt like watching human behavior through a microscope.

  2. I think in this case, it makes the emotion of the end more powerful, but if it wasn’t redeemed by that I agree it’d be a bit hard to take…

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