"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens up between its origins in the kabuki style and its subject of starvation in a mountain village! The village enforces a tradition of carrying those who have reached the age of 70 up the side of mountain and abandoning them there to die of exposure.
Keisuke Kinoshita's 1958 film tells its story with deliberate artifice, using an elaborate set with a path beside a bubbling brook, matte paintings for the backgrounds, mist on dewey evenings, and lighting that drops the backgrounds to black at dramatic moments and then brings up realistic lighting again. Some of its exteriors use black foregrounds and bloody red skies; others use grays and blues. As in kabuki theater, there is a black-clad narrator to tell us what's happening.
This artifice supports a story that contains great emotional charge. Kinuyo Tanaka plays Orin, a 70-year-old widow whose resignation in the face of her traditional fate is in stark contrast with the behavior of her neighbor Mata (Seiji Miyaguchi), who protests violently against his destiny. Their family attitudes are similarly opposed; while Orin's son Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi) loves his mother and doesn't have any desire to carry her up the mountainside, Mata's family has already cut off his food, and he wanders the village as a desperate scavenger; Orin invites him in and offers him a bowl of rice, which be gobbles