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The Ballad of Narayama (1958)

Narayama bushikô (original title)
A kabuki theatre-inflected story about a poor village whose people have to be carried to a nearby mountain to die once they get old.



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6 wins & 1 nomination. See more awards »
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Complete credited cast:
Teiji Takahashi ...
Yûko Mochizuki ...
Danko Ichikawa ...
Seiji Miyaguchi ...
Keiko Ogasawara ...
Yûnosuke Itô ...
Matayan's son
Eijirô Tôno ...
Ken Mitsuda ...


In Kabuki style, the film tells the story of a remote mountain village where the scarcity of food leads to a voluntary but socially-enforced policy in which relatives carry 70-year-old family members up Narayama mountain to die. Granny Orin is approaching 70, content to embrace her fate. Her widowed son Tatsuhei cannot bear losing his mother, even as she arranges his marriage to a widow his age. Her grandson Kesa, who's girlfriend is pregnant, is selfishly happy to see Orin die. Around them, a family of thieves are dealt with severely, and an old man, past 70, whose son has cast him out, scrounges for food. Will Orin's loving and accepting spirit teach and ennoble her family? Written by <jhailey@hotmail.com>

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Release Date:

19 June 1961 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Ballad of Narayama  »

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Aspect Ratio:

2.35 : 1
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Did You Know?


The final film to be added under Roger Ebert's list of "Great Movies" before his death in 2013. See more »


Remade as The Ballad of Narayama (1983) See more »

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User Reviews

Succeeds in some ways that a more realistic telling can miss
9 October 2007 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

One of the most fascinating books I've read in recent years is Sherwin Nuland's How We Die. In it he relates the exact physical progression of major diseases. But something that fascinates me even more is how our frame of mind changes our perception. I can think of no better example in the realm of death and dying than this ancient tale of 'going up the mountain to die.' Set in an indeterminate time in old Japan, Ballad of Narayama chronicles two elderly people's preparations for death. One of them is Orin. She is a grandmother calmly facing what lies ahead, and putting her affairs (especially those of her family and how they will cope with her dying) into some sort of harmonious picture, so she doesn't have to worry about them. Her neighbour, a man of similar age, is dreading it.

We should maybe bear in mind that a strong spirit of empathy pervades Japanese society, more so than in the West. Human relations are very closely knit and there is much less drive for individualism and autonomy than in the West. Community traditions can play a very big part. And the tradition in the village where these people live is that when people reach a certain age they go up the mountain and die.

Orin takes delight in the 'glowing crimson of the autumn maple.' She has an almost non-theistic spirituality, an idealism and altruism towards others, as well as a humility about her own readiness for death. On the one hand, she says, "The sooner I go, the more the gods will favour me." But she is strangely ashamed of having a full set of teeth. She feels it would be more proper to go to her death as a toothless hag.

If you are spiritually minded, it is quite easy to say that she is in tune with her Shinto or Buddhist beliefs. But if we look at her psychology she has created a world for herself that is filled with attitudes that make her feel good about herself. The thought of her 'pilgrimage' to Narayama fills her with poetic ideas, even if she has no illusions about suffering.

The elderly man on the other hand, clings to his life. He is so obnoxious that his family react badly. They eventually refuse to feed him. "Instead of suffering so, go to Narayama," Orin bids him. "Narayama is the abode of the gods, a place of bliss and blessings." Although it is physically the same place for both of them, it is in effect a very different place for Orin because of her frame of mind. I think the lack of overt religiosity in the film emphasises this. Religion, for those that like it, simply makes, we could say, a ready made poem for us to fit into. Of course, forcing the old man up the hill is a pretty heinous act - and one that the film does not shirk from dealing with.

Often when we watch a film, we want to get submerged in the 'story.' But this can deflect from considering the point that the artist wants to make. The playwright Bertolt Brecht understood this and developed many of his influential theories after watching Japanese theatre. Borrowing from the Kabuki tradition, Ballad of Narayama distances the viewer from the story by creating a very theatrical effect. At the same time, various devices are used to make sure we remain gripped and pay attention.

The film is accompanied by expository chants of a 'jyuri' narrator. There is frequently an unashamed and flamboyant staginess. For instance, a silk backdrop is loosed to reveal a forest at night. What might be considered silly in western cinema works with a Shakespearean majesty here. The film is visually and musically arresting. It doesn't rely on 'realism' to create an effect. We start thinking about the mental states and moral dilemmas of what is patently a modern fairy tale rather than just entertainment.

At the end of the film, a sudden switch to non-theatrical black and white has a disappearing train and a station called 'The Abandoning Place.'

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