Ballad of Narayama / Narayama bushiko (1983/Shohei Imamura/Japan) ++
Great rendition of primitive social life in a remote community struggling to survive amidst an ungrateful Nature. Morality becomes meaningless when confronted to the call of starvation, primal instincts take over and balance quickly between murder, infanticide, trade of babies, rape and survival of the fittest. Shots of animals hunting, eating, mating and giving birth are recurrently inserted to illustrate the close parallel between these humans and the soulless behavior in the wilderness. Personally I thought these naturalists pictures came of as a naive cliché after a while, especially because of the abrupt editing that fails to incorporate them fully in an aesthetic unity.
A small village of a dozen families lost in the mountains is confronted to many moral decisions around the year, as the harvest go thiner and the neighborhood overcrowded. Baby girls are sold for food. Baby boys are killed at birth, and if they live out they are paria, treated as underdogs by their own family because only the first born son will inherit the ancestral property thus be able to mary. Eldery reaching 70 yold are kindly transported to the snowy mountain top comes winter to spare the burden of feeding people who can't work in the field. Superstition and fear of the dead spirits overwhelm their daily activity, paying homage to ancesters with prayers and begging for mercy. It's the ideal freudian field study: one takes out father and mother, one wishes his elder's death to climb the hierarchy, one asks his daughter to be a whore, one sleeps with the neighbor's mother...
Onin, a 69 yold grandmother is at the head of a large family shamed by too many humiliations... Her husband refused to abandon his mother in the Narayama mountain and deserted his family. Her elder son's wife died giving birth to a baby girl. The heir son isn't married yet. And she has all her teeth in healthy shape, which is a shame for old people, like if they pacted with the devil not to die, which means they remain a burden longer than normal.
Unfortunately only the story is strong, the performances are exaggerated, theatrical, often too grotesque while they should have been more interior and instinctive. Towards the end the film becomes interesting aestheticaly, with a few unspoken scenes as life goes on after a serie of inhumane tragedies. I'm probably most disappointed because of the recommendations I had heard. A weak Imamura in my opinion, style-wise, the direction is rather flat. Palme d'Or at Cannes 1983 anyway...
This depiction of humanity dregs simmering in a closed environment reminds Kurosawa's Lower Depths (1957) and Dodesukaden (1970). Recently a first time japanese director, Hiroshi Toda, developped this theme of the multigenerational nucleus family in Snow in spring / Shunsetsu (2004), taking place in today's Tokyo and abandonning the senile father in the mountain top is also a cultural solution for this middle class urban family. This film however is commendable.
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