Part horror movie, part sex comedy, part meditative tone piece, "The Ballad of Narayama" shows us life at the extreme, at both its crudest and most grand, with the raw and vivid immediacy of ancient myth. Director Shohei Imamura has said he wants to make "unsettling" films, and "The Ballad of Narayama" is that. Slow and long (over two hours) but worth the wait, it's that rare kind of movie that can remove the scales from your eyes.
Imamura brings us back to the northern Japan of a century ago, where a group of villagers has made its accommodation with times that are bone-hard. Marriage is a luxury stingily meted out according to the amount of food available; discarded infants pop up in the rice paddies as routinely as candy wrappers; and when a man is found to have stolen food, his entire family is run into an open pit and buried alive.
Old age, too, is too dear here, and the community's ritual of killing their old -- abandoning them to starve on the slopes of the Narayama mountains -- provides the movie with its narrative frame. About to go to Narayama, Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto) spends her days arranging the future of her family: she finds a wife for her widowed son, Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata). Her other son, Risuke (Tonpei Hidari) -- nicknamed Stinky -- craves a roll in the hay, but his stench repulses everyone (even the neighbor's dog); in the interests of family harmony, Tatsuhei offers him a night with his new bride. Finally, Orin can go to Narayama in peace.
The laws of this world are harsh, but for Imamura, primitive hardships provide life with a moral seriousness that civilization fritters away. On the precipice, all is sacred; Imamura's vision is a sort of unblinking pantheism that celebrates life at its most basic. Shots of the various couples coupling are intercut with shots of snakes, and even moths, doing the same; while the swift violence of the mob is terrifying, it, too, is sacred -- Imamura shows us a snake engorging a rodent, an owl doing the same. The easy life insulates us from nature, which proceeds through an endless round of sex and death. Life wasn't meant to be easy.
With its stately pace, "The Ballad of Narayama" has its longueurs, but the beauty of the film carries you past them -- we seem to see it through crystal, and the autumnal colors of Narayama are lovelier than life. Imamura has composed the movie with a steady camera -- outside of an occasional zoom or traveling shot, it's all montage -- that lends it a meditative intensity. Just when its deliberateness threatens to grind to a halt, Imamura pulls out an image of startling originality: a buzzard flapping around in a corpse's rib cage; an old man tied up and locked in a closet by his son; and that haunting, valedictory scene of Orin, praying on Narayama amidst the skeletons, shooing Tatsuhei away as the snow falls. It is the work of an odd and reckless talent.