I don’t know how I managed to do this, but I somehow managed to watch two films in a row where an entire family is cruelly murdered. In Funny Games it was parcelled out over the course of two hours… here in The Ballad of Narayama we see 9-10 family members being buried alive as a punishment for stealing food. Welcome to the cruel world of rural Japan in the 19th century.
This film, like the life of the villagers it depicts, is bleak. Over the course of two hours we spend a year in a village where the local custom is for everyone over 70 to be carried up a mountain in order to kill them via exposure. It’s a known practice called ubasute and is something that is known to have happened.
We know from the off that the central character, 69 year old Orin, will be carried off to her death by the end of the film. It’s ridiculous really as she still has all her own teeth and is still highly active. However, this is the world she lives in – where there is barely enough food for the village to last the winter, ergo the burying alive of food thieves.
Much like The Tree of Wooden Clogs we watch a community try to function within the means of extreme hardship. The difference here being that The Ballad of Narayama is at times both more brutal (because of the higher stakes) and more introverted (because it’s a Japanese film). There’s also dog rape… which feels like it goes beyond brutal at this point.
Despite the fact that this is a bleak and cruel film there are some fantastic set pieces – especially in the final act where Orin is carried up the mountain to die amongst the skeletons of those that came before her. The image of her stoically sitting in the snow as she prepares for death (see above) is beautifully tragic. Similarly, the way Orin holds in her sorrow to spare her, clearly distraught, son and lets out a single tear as he departs is just… utterly heartbreaking.
So yes, after watching two rather draining films in a row I think it’s time to switch to anime and eat some chicken.