The Ballad of Narayama

The Ballad of NarayamaLast 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.

boneyard entrance

Tatsuhei and Orin in the boneyard

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.

Orin in the snow
Orin waits in the snow to die. The Ballad of Narayama, 1958

My reaction to Pulp Fiction

All right. Dinner.

  • One medium Dr Pepper, no ice
  • 8-pc chicken nuggets from Chik-Fil-A
  • Medium waffle fries
  • Cole slaw

Is that how you spell it? “Cole slaw”? What a ridiculous term.

I suppose my readers–yes, all two of you–are wondering what happened to the sushi. Well, Sean was already late getting home because he stopped off at his parents’ house to pick up a few things he still hadn’t moved over here. I saw his saxophone case and a computer case in his car, and apparently there’s more stashed in there somewhere. He also ran around to Best Buy and to the Suncoast in the mall, looking for movies. I’m not sure what got him in the mood to watch a movie tonight, but he called me and said he was looking to buy one or more of the following: Pulp Fiction, The Transporter, and Aliens. It turned out that Aliens is currently out of print, due to its initial DVD release being of rather poor quality, and is due to be rereleased in an Alien box set this winter. He finally decided to get Pulp Fiction only, but the mall wanted $10 more than Best Buy, so he swung by the apartment, picked me up, and we ran over to Best Buy.

On the way he told me that he was supposed to meet someone on AC2 at 9pm. This meant that we would have to rush at dinner. I said that we should go to Chik-Fil-A instead, then, and save the sushi for when we had more time. Part of what I love about eating out is not being rushed and just enjoying the evening. So we grabbed Pulp Fiction–and the Matrix Reloaded soundtrack–at Best Buy and then crossed the street to grab some Chik-Fil-A. We came home and Sean was all ready to watch the movie.

I was a little hesitant. I know that Pulp Fiction is one of those movies everyone has seen and that it’s critically acclaimed and all, but I’d heard some rumors about what it was like, and quite frankly I was a little afraid of it. So I wasn’t too thrilled about watching it right away. It turned out that my DVD player couldn’t handle the DVD…it has problems with most modern discs, unfortunately. I thought I was saved, but Sean said we could just watch it on my computer. I relented because he really seemed to want to see it.

I have just retrieved

  • One glass of sugar-free raspberry juice

I wanted ice cream, but I didn’t want to write that I was eating ice cream like a wuss because I was afraid of a movie. :P

So we were watching Pulp Fiction. The initial scene was annoying, but it didn’t really bother me. Well, except maybe that kiss, because it was kind of gross. I like kisses and kissing scenes, but that one was sloppy, and it also felt stupid. I mean, these were robbers. Congratufuckinglations on loving each other, but could you stop being assholes?

Anyway, my reaction to the next scene pretty much set the tone for the rest of what I saw of the film. Travolta and Jackson’s commentary is amusing, but as things go on and the plot is unfurled I can sense that something is going to happen. Something I know I am not going to like. Something involving violence. I watched Desperado; I’ve seen flying gore and guts. But that’s the kind of movie where it doesn’t matter because it’s so sudden and surprising. It’s cartoony almost. With this, I had to deal with the waiting. Waiting while they chatted with one another, bringing up topics that were seemingly irrelevant–although of course I could tell that everything was included with a purpose. All their apparently inane chatter did was build up the tension. And when they arrived to do the job, instead of simply getting it done…they built up the tension even more.

When Jackson finally shot the guy on the couch, I jerked as if I had been the one shot. And then the guy in the chair began sniveling and I knew he was going to die. I knew it would happen; why wouldn’t they go ahead and kill him? But no, they had to torture him, had to taunt him, had to teach him a lesson. I felt like I was the one being tortured and lectured to, and it just wouldn’t stop, until finally they were filling the guy with bullets. But seeing him executed was not a relief. It did not relax me, because I knew that the movie was just beginning, and that things far worse than this were coming.

I knew I wasn’t safe. I knew that I was going to see things I didn’t want to see. I tried to build up my courage, but I was already hugging my elbows, frozen in my chair. I couldn’t eat my dinner. (Until later ;P)

The drug dealer scene was surreal and pathetic, but it allowed me to relax a little. I began to cringe again when Travolta shot up. And then he was on his way to see Uma Thurman–a beautiful woman who I found horribly unattractive in this film–and she kept being druggy-sexy, and you knew she was off-limits, and you were just waiting for the shit to hit the fan, and it did, with a fucking vengeance. And the tension just kept building.

The direction…it’s brilliant, perfect. It makes you scared about what’s coming next because you know something‘s coming. This is the kind of movie where the plot flows naturally and beautifully but instead of riding along with it, you’re being yanked behind on a choker chain that keeps getting tighter and tighter. You never choke, and sometimes it loosens, but there’s never enough slack to breathe completely, and then you’re being dragged along again and the noose around your neck just gets tighter and tighter.

It was uncomfortable. It was scary. It was a crawly panicky feeling in my gut that made me want to scream.

By the time we got to Bruce Willis’ escape from the boxing ring and his meeting with his strange lover, I couldn’t take it anymore. They kept talking and talking and I kept cringing and waiting for the door to burst open and for someone to riddle their bodies with bullets. The tension was too much, it was just too much. I got up and left the room and sat on the toilet and cried.

I am a total fucking wuss.

I sat there curled up and let myself cry until I was done. When I finally managed to calm down, I washed my face and came back into the office and told Sean that I didn’t think I could watch the rest of the movie.

“Why not?” he asked.

I hugged him around the shoulders from behind; he was still seated at his computer. “Because I don’t like it,” was the answer I came up with.

“Fair enough.”

My husband is a very understanding man. I don’t think AJ would have accepted that reason.

I wanted to explain it to him, but I’m not sure I’ve even adequately described my feelings here. The movie was a pressure cooker, I guess, and I was the first steam to flee. It’s not something that makes me jump for joy and be proud of being me, that’s for sure.

So I asked Sean to tell me what happens in the rest of the movie, and he did. Now that I know exactly what is going to occur, I might be able to watch it…but not today, not right now. Right now I’d just like to calm back down, drink my raspberry juice, and chat on IRC. Then I’ll go to bed and snuggle under the covers and try to forget the horror.