The Ballad of Narayama
The Japanese cinema has always been richly celebrated in America, from Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa to Hayao Miyazaki and Takashi Miike. Their intense, concentrated formalism contrasts nicely with our freewheeling, big-guns-and-bigger-breasts approach to cinema. But some Japanese films are so deeply entrenched in their culture that releasing them in America might seem, to the uninitiated, like a pointless endeavor. "Ballad of Narayama" is one of those movies. But the same things that make it seem impenetrable are what make it such an interesting find.
Set in the 19th century, the film deals (as so many Japanese classics do,) with the unfortunate fact of aging. It's a problem they deal with directly in the film: upon their 70th birthday, the town's denizens climb Mount Narayama to "meet the Gods" (translation: freeze to death.)
Director Keisuke Kinoshita gives the film its esoteric texture: he films it as if it were a Kabuki play. The actors roam from beautifully realized set to beautifully realized set; the luscious, colorful photography emphasizing the artifice rather than clouding it. If you're not familiar with the style (and I barely am myself,) it can be a bit intimidating. But it's also overwhelmingly 'busy' - you may get a bit lost, but you'll never get a bit bored.
Unfortunately, Criterion hasn't included any extras that shed further light on Kabuki traditions, or on their use in the cinema - all we get are trailers, and the requisite essay (contained within a booklet.) Still, with an HD transfer this immaculate, it befits a film this luscious and aesthetically pleasurable. You could get lost in the frame all day. Who needs extras?
"The Ballad of Narayama"