Keisuke Kinoshita was the cineaste laureate of Official Japan, his films seeming to pander to his audience rather than challenge it. His best-loved work, Nijûshi no hitomi(Twenty-Four Eyes, 1954), allowed the nation to exorcise the previous two decades of military rule while exonerating ordinary Japanese of any guilt. His films won all sorts of official honours, being selected as “Ministry of Education film[s]” and for “Masterpiece appreciation series” (as indicated in pre-credit titlecards). A consciousness of his “official” status may explain Kinoshita’s decision to film Shichirô Fukazawa’s 1956 novella Narayama bushiko (Ballad of Narayama), published only two years previously and thus a modern novel, in the style of traditional Japanese drama. As Donald Richie and Joseph L. Anderson noted in the year of the film of Ballad of Narayama’s release (1958), such drama was ignored by the Japanese public, but utilised to embody and project its “essential” values (1).
Ballad of Narayama purports to narrate the ancient legend of a primitive village in the mountains, where food is so scarce its theft is a capital offence, locally punished. In order to conserve supplies, the elderly are abandoned on Mount Narayama when they reach the age of 70, and unwanted babies are casually abandoned. Japan’s greatest actress, Kinuyo Tanaka, plays Orin, a matriarch approaching the fatal age; having made arrangements for the family she will leave behind, she is carried by her eldest son to Narayama. This mostly silent section takes up the last quarter of the film. Orin was the latest in a long line of masochistic mothers who featured prominently in postwar Japanese cinema including in two masterpieces also starring Tanaka, A Hen in the Wind (Kaze no naka no mendori, 1948, Yasujiro Ozu) and Sanshô dayû(1954, Kenji Mizoguchi) (2). But whereas such films spoke directly to recent trauma, Ballad of Narayama was released on the crest of the economic miracle.
Most writers on Ballad of Narayama agree that Kinoshita adapts Fukazawa’s novella in a “kabuki style”, referring to the traditional Japanese dance-drama (3). They cite the foregrounding of stage machinery, stylised lighting, and the nagauta storytelling (a singing narrator accompanied by samisen and drums). But this is to overlook the deliberate “impurity” with which Kinoshita treats his material. Formally, Ballad of Narayama may be stylised, but the actors’ performances and recitation of their lines are not in the declamatory kabuki manner, they are psychologically motivated (they also don’t wear masks or excessive make-up). The long take/long shot approach that seems to mimic the dynamics of the stage is penetrated by tracking shots and a number of mid-shots and even close-ups (especially and appropriately of food and family), while the huge studio sets, far from the “non-representational” abstractions of kabuki (4) are excessively “naturalistic” in the manner of Victorian drama, with streams, forests, fields, the village and interiors recreated in great detail. Kinoshita makes use of non-theatrical arts as well. The foreground “depth” created by his sets is combined with flat backdrops; together with the mismatch in scale between mountains and figures, and the Sirk-like saturation of monochrome colour at moments of crisis or intimacy, this recalls the Japanese graphic arts, especially scroll-painting and woodcuts.
Such a heterogeneous approach was wholly consistent with the direction traditional theatre was taking in Japan after World War II, where strict hierarchical barriers between forms were broken down, plays were taken off traditional stages and performed in sites such as department stores and schools, texts were often based on modern novels, rather than traditional Japanese legends, and modern plays were staged in a “traditional” style. A kyōgen adaptation of Fukazawa’s novel was produced in December 1957 (5). Orin was played without words by a male performer (as is traditional) in a nō mask (6) and the text employed an elaborate flashback structure, supported by flute and shoulder drums (7). Whether or not Kinoshita was influenced by this particular production, his approach to Ballad of Narayama proves that he was open to the most vital contemporary social and cultural currents (8), and not manufacturing touristic trinkets, as implied by Richie and Anderson.
Of course, this melange of traditional arts is typical of Japanese art (9), and not incompatible with a conservative aesthetic and ethos. It was Kinoshita’s stylisation that Shohei Imamura set out to counter when he made his The Ballad of Narayama, the 1983 Cannes Palme d’Or winner that has surpassed Kinoshita’s version in film history. Whatever the considerable value of Imamura’s work, he had an unattractive habit in interviews and press-books of puffing it up at the expense of other filmmakers, decrying the apparent commercial and culturally evasive compromises of Ozu and Kinoshita; he fearlessly uncovered the primal desires and appetites beneath Official Japan. So Imamura flew to a deliberately inaccessible location, used natural lighting, forced his actors to live like their impoverished characters, and asked his lead actress to genuinely smash her teeth against stone. Typically, he placed a far greater emphasis on sex and violence, claiming these were elided in Kinoshita’s version (10).
This approach may have produced an Imamura masterpiece, but misunderstood the deliberate stylisation of Fukazawa’s novella, Kinoshita’s committed engagement throughout his career with the clash of tradition and modernity, as well as the place of desire and taboo in Japanese society. It also misreads Ballad of Narayama’s continuity within Kinoshita’s oeuvre. This might sound bizarre to anyone only familiar with the naturalistic weepie Twenty-Four eyes, with its account of recent Japanese history and extensive location shooting. But Kinoshita’s films have always been concerned with the role of women and children within patriarchy, as well as the experience of isolated communities. Like Ballad of Narayama, they are often essentially musicals: Karumen kokyo ni kaeru (Carmen Comes Home, 1951), Japan’s first colour film, had characters break into song and dance and even put on a climactic show in the Hollywood manner; Kinoshita’s masterpiece, the experimental melodrama Nihon no higeki(A Japanese Tragedy, 1953), is about a failed singer turned geisha and abused mother. Attuned to the formalism inherent in Japanese life – the rules of school, playground and workplace; the frequency of group singing and parades; the use of communal and folk song as receptacle of social values and agent of social pressure – Ballad of Narayama simply takes these elements familiar from his earlier films and pushes them to their aesthetic limit. The result is a tour-de-force that clashes static set-pieces (including the film’s most astonishing sequence, a five-minute ritual as Orin asks the village elders for advice, the figures illuminated against interior darkness by phosphorescent, ghostly lighting) with “extravagant” camerawork that has been compared to Max Ophuls (11). The result inspired François Truffaut to ejaculate more than 50 years ago, “My God, what a beautiful film!” (12).
- Donald Richie and Joseph L. Anderson, “Traditional Theater and the Film in Japan: The Influence of the Kabuki, Noh, and Other Forms on Film Content and Style”, Film Quarterly vol. 12, no. 1, Autumn 1958, p. 5.
- Earlier versions of this maternal figure can be found in Japanese films before the war, most famously in Ozu’s Hitori musuko (The Only Son,1936). The later mothers, however, could be said to figure the battered Japanese nation itself.
- Richie and Anderson, pp. 6-7; Linda Ehrlich and Ning Ma, “College Course File: East Asian Cinema”, Journal of Film and Video vol. 42, no. 2, Summer 1990, pp. 61-62; “Tony Rayns on The Ballad of Narayama”, DVD Extra on The Ballad of Narayama [Shohei Imamura], Masters of Cinema, 2011.
- Ehrlich and Ma, p. 61.
- Kyōgen is a comic form of drama focused on “everyday” characters that developed alongside the severe, aristocratic nō, and influenced the development of kabuki.
- Orin does not speak in the last quarter of Kinoshita’s film as she wills herself into mask-like immobility.
- Seki Kobayashi, “Kyōgen in the Postwar Era”, Asian Theatre Journal vol. 24, no. 1, Spring 2007, pp. 152-153, 157, 160-162, 169, 171 (adapted and translated by Shinko Kagaya from an essay originally published in 1996).
- Akira Kurosawa made his nō Macbeth in 1957 (Kumononsujo [Throne of Blood]). In 1970 Kinoshita, as one of the Club of Four Knights, would produce Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den, like Ballad of Narayama a bold experiment in colour filmmaking.
- Ehrlich and Ma, p. 55.
- Max Tessier, “Interview with Imamura Shôhei”, Booklet with the DVD of The Ballad of Narayama [Imamura], p. 11 (first published in 1983).
- François Truffaut, “Keisuke Kinoshita: The Legend of Narayama”, The Films of My Life, trans. Leonard Mayhew, Da Capo, New York, 1994, p. 248 (review first published in 1958).
- Truffaut, p. 249.
Narayama bushiko/Ballad of Narayama (1958 Japan 98 mins)
Prod Co: Shochiku Prod: Masaharu Kokaji, Ryuzo Otani Dir: Keisuke Kinoshita Scr: Keisuke Kinoshita, based on the novella by Shichirô Fukazawa Phot: Hiroyuki Kusuda Ed: Yoshi Sugihara Prod Des: Kisaku Ito Mus: Chûji Kinoshita, Matsunosuke Nozawa
Cast: Kinuyo Tanaka, Teiji Takahashi, Yûki Mochizuki, Danko Ichikawa, Keiko Ogasawara, Seiji Miyaguchi