A joruri narrator clad in raven black introduces us to Narayama Bushiko as heavy curtains reveal the backdrop of a tribal village. In the kabuki tradition, the samisen ballad speaks of a kind elderly woman, Orin, who is contemplating her ascent to Mount Narayama. This most stylized work by Kinoshita is also his most dramatically theatrical, replete with meticulously designed soundstages and dramatic lighting. A haunting allegory that shows the conflict between filial duty, tradition and social pressure, the same story was remade by Imamura Shohei decades later, but the original remains a startling, culturally resonant magnum opus. —Festival de Cannes
Universally considered one of the greatest Japanese directors, Keisuke Kinoshita worked almost his entire career for Shochiku, the Japanese studio that also housed Yasujiro Ozu. Shochiku was that studio most devoted to what the Japanese call shomin-geki, stories of everyday life; yet while Ozu developed a rigorous, austere style that he perfected from film to film, Kinoshita was constantly changing, challenging himself to adapt to new subject matter and ways of storytelling. The director of Japan’s first color feature film, the charming musical satire Carmen Comes Home, could move just a few months later on to the bold experimentation just a few months later of A Japanese Tragedy, a work whose jumbled timeframe and insertion of newsreel footage anticipates the modernist films of the Sixties. He made bold use of traditional Japanese art forms such as kabuki (The Ballad of Narayama) and brush painting (The River Fuefuki), but could… read more
Perhaps the only film this one can be compared to is Masahiro Shinoda's Double Suicide. Although Ballad of Narayama is the earlier work, both were attempts to translate traditional Japanese theater tropes to the screen. In this one, director Keisuke Kinoshita presents us with a kabuki play on film. Based off the classic legend, Ballad of Narayama is presented in glorious 'Scope and Technicolor. Everything here is artificial, the backdrops are all matte paintings, and the sets elaborately constructed and decorated. The use of color in this film is a milestone on par with Black Narcissus and Gone with the Wind. What is impressive is how well the kabuki elements play out on film; Ballad of Narayama is richly cinematic. The final act alone constitutes one of the most impressive set pieces ever constructed. Alas, this is a difficult film. The theatrical elements either become too overpowering at times, or they serve to distance the audience, and the film sadly falls into the same pitfalls a great deal of heavily stylized works fall into. If it were not for the cinematic and emotionally ravishing final act this would be more of an interesting artistic experiment than a great film. And I am not sure it was the best introduction to Kinoshita, his contemporary dramas like A Japanese Tragedy and Fireworks Over the Sea look more interesting and powerful. By all means, this is definitely worth watching, and a great film, but not without its issues.