Based on the Japanese folk legend, in a secluded 19th century village tradition dictates that when a resident reaches the age of 17 they must climb Mount Narayama to meet the powerful Gods (and subsequently freeze to death). Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) is about to reach the required age and has been preparing to make the journey. But before she does, she would like to see her son Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi) remarried, the elderly woman eagerly awaiting the arrival of his bride-to-be Tama (Yuko Mochizuki) to arrive from a nearby village. Complications arise, but tradition must be upheld, Orin committed to make the journey no matter what conflicts arise and feelings are hurt.
I got the feeling after watching Keisuke Kinoshita’s The Ballad of Narayama (Narayama Bushiko) that is had to be a major influence on Joe Wright’s recent Oscar-winning adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The impressionistic nature of the film, the kabuki-like roots that anchor one image (and scene) to the next, all if it gives Kinoshita’s work a theatrical quality that is oftentimes striking. He takes the tragic of the tale and makes it inherently his own, emotions always front and center even as the measured, mostly formal pacing allows little room for maneuvering or nuance.
It’s a masterful presentation, striking in the extreme, filled with visual images that are nothing short of breathtaking. The director weaves sight and sound together in a way that is hauntingly ephemeral, viewers willing to go with the film all the way until its powerful close certain to have much fodder for debate and discussion to mull over afterwards.
The great thing is, even with all this artificial artifice Kinoshita never forgets to keep his characters, chiefly Orin, front and center. Tanaka’s mesmerizing performance a thing of true, existential beauty, the actress able to transmit so much with just a glance or a deft move of the shoulder. She’s stunning, and even though there are precious few close-ups and the majority of the actions (and interactions) are seen from afar she has an ability to bring the viewer in close that is downright magical.
The Ballad of Narayama will try some viewer’s patience. It holds style above all else and is beholden to the artifice that Kinoshita diligently creates. But the movie’s emotions ring devastatingly true, and by the time it was over the tears that came to my eyes were as genuine as any I have probably ever shed.
The Ballad of Narayama is presented on a dual-layer 50GB Blu-ray MPEG-4 AVC Video with a 2.35:1/1080p transfer. As stated in the included booklet: “This new digital master was produced from the 2011 restoration done by Shochiku Studios and Imagica. For the restoration, a scan was created from a new 35mm interpositive wetgate printed from the original camera negative; the original camera negative could not be scanned directly due to excessive damage. The restoration work was then performed in 2K resolution.”
The Ballad of Narayama comes to Blu-ray in Japanese LPCM Mono and includes optional English subtitles. Again, from the included booklet: “The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a sound positive. Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.”
Extras here include:
· Original Theatrical Trailer (with optional English subtitles) (4 minutes)
· Original Theatrical Teaser (with optional English subtitles) (3 minutes)
Also included is a 20-page Illustrated Booklet featuring an essay by critic Philip Kemp.
Lack of special features aside, The Ballad of Narayama is a remarkable piece of visual poetry that digs in and refuses to let go. Criterion’s Blu-ray presentation is beyond immaculate, fans of the film urged to add it to their personal collection right this very second.