Last night I watched the 1958 Criterion Collection film The Ballad of Narayama on Hulu. This film deals with the possibly mythical tradition of ubasute, literally “discarding the elderly”. While Hulu’s plot summary made it seem as though the film is about a man struggling with having to leave his mother in the mountains to die, much of the story comes from his mother’s perspective. I would characterize this film more as the contrasting reactions of a very close mother and son to a tradition that forces them apart. (Criterion’s plot summary is much better.)
Where mother Orin is profoundly interested in tradition and saving face, son Tatsuhei is more strongly affected by the now, by the people and things he personally cares about. This contrast is plainly evident from the very beginning of the film; Orin is excited to have found a new wife for Tatsuhei, someone who can take care of her son once she’s gone to Mt. Narayama to die. Meanwhile, Tatsuhei is still mourning the loss of his first wife, and the thought of a new one simply causes him to worry about food supplies and remind him that he will lose his mother soon.
Tatsuhei’s son Kesakichi, a worthless layabout who has gotten his girlfriend pregnant, is often a catalyst for dissent in the family. He objects to getting a “new mother”, wanting to maximize available supplies for his girlfriend. He incites the local children to sing songs about demons with 33 teeth, which shames Orin, who at 69 still has 28 teeth. She is so unhappy that people and gods might think she is prideful or that she won’t accept her death at 70 with grace that she smashes her mouth into a cooking pot to break and knock out her own teeth. Tatsuhei is horrified; sobbing, he insists that Orin eat the special treat of white rice she has made for the festival, frustrated at the idea that she might no longer be able to enjoy food.
As Orin continues to put her affairs in order, Kesakichi continues to be obnoxious, bringing his girlfriend to live with the family and giving her most of the food, asking Orin when she’ll be going to Narayama. His girlfriend becomes bold too, joining in on these torments, but Orin accepts it all calmly, repeating that she’ll be going to Narayama at the New Year, the year she turns 70. Tatsuhei can say nothing to dissuade her and hides his face under a towel to cry.
Orin and Tatsuhei’s new wife Tama bond immediately, and their relationship is one of the best parts of the movie. Tama loves Orin as a mother and mourns almost as openly as Tatsuhei at the thought of her impending sacrifice. Unlike Tatsuhei, however, aside from one comment at their first meeting, Tama says nothing to Orin about her choice. She makes no attempts, subtle or otherwise, to change Orin’s mind. Perhaps she respects Orin’s independence over her own selfish desires. Or perhaps she recognizes the futility of fighting tradition and simply doesn’t want to make the event even harder on the family.
Neighbor Mata is already 70 and has resisted going to Narayama. He is starved at home and comes to Orin for food. Mata serves as an example of the cost of fighting tradition. In the end he is bound, dragged into the mountains, and flung off a cliff by his son.
And in the end, Orin’s wish to follow tradition is honored by her son, who carries her into the mountains on his back. Following established ritual, they are not allowed to speak once they enter the Narayama area, and so Tatsuhei stumbles unwillingly, silently through forest and rock and then piles and piles of skeletons as crows look on.
The sets in the film are fascinating; obviously the backgrounds are paintings, and transitions are done by cutting the lights and moving large props to reveal new scenes such that it feels like watching a play. But the sets are sprawling and elaborate, larger than any theater could contain. The camera pans along them, following actors as they move down paths and into detailed structures. The Narayama skeleton set is eerie; I honestly didn’t expect it, and I stared speechless at the clusters of bones surrounding Orin and Tatsuhei.
The final scene, showing a train pulling out of a station called Obasute, looked too real by comparison to all the other sets; it was jarring. I’m not sure what the point of that scene was, other than perhaps to make the point of the movie obvious. In my opinion it already was, so the scene is unnecessary.
I’m unclear on whether or not ubasute ever actually occurred. From the movie, I can understand why it might have–food supplies being low could inspire communities to dispose of their least productive members. Indeed, the film includes a different example of such a thing happening; an entire family is killed after it’s discovered they have been stealing. In this sense, I find the contrast between Orin and Kesakichi fascinating; of the two of them, Orin is far more useful to the family. (Orin knows how to catch trout, and shares her secret only with Tama; she admonishes the other woman not to tell anyone, perhaps highlighting the need for someone in this community to be of use. If only Tama knows the secret, her value goes up.)
What value does Kesakichi bring? He adds a mouth, eventually two mouths, to feed and doesn’t do his share of the work. If there was a “just” system for rooting out those who didn’t contribute, Kesakichi would be the first one kicked to the curb. But of course, getting rid of the young isn’t the tradition.
And despite the way he treats her, Orin loves Kesakichi and takes care of him and his girlfriend just as well as she takes care of the rest of the family. She is willing to sacrifice herself for the sake of tradition, but I wonder how she’d feel about others? After all, while she chides Mata for not going to Narayama, she still feeds him. Somehow, I can’t see her doing to Kesakichi what Kesakichi did to her.
Then again, even if she did, Kesakichi wouldn’t care. He’s not interested in tradition or saving face; he’s just interested in himself.
I’m sure this contrast between Orin and Kesakichi was intentional, meant to underline the importance of valuing our elders instead of tossing them aside. And I have to say it was effective, because I love Orin and I hate Kesakichi.
I found myself relating to and sympathizing with Orin. Her need to be accepted, to fit the mold others had created for her, was tragic, and cost her her life while she was still perfectly healthy. But she took it all with a smile, with no complaints. This made the message of the film far stronger than had she rebelled against her fate. We saw the lengths she was willing to go to stay in people’s favor; we understood the sheer ridiculousness of it; yet we knew she really had no choice, and that made her devotion to her reputation come off as brave rather than pathetic.