Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list.
The Ballad of Narayama aka 楢山節考 or Narayama bushikō
dir. Shohei Imamura (1983) scr. Shohei Imamura, based on the novel by Shichiro Fukazawa cin. Masao Tochizawa with Ken Ogata, Sumiko Sakamoto, Tonpei Hidari, Seiji Kurasaki
In 100 words: If he were not a filmmaker, Imamura would have made a great anthropologist. His incisive observations of Japanese society’s outcasts was best epitomized by this naturalistic, almost zoological take on a Japanese urban legend. Narayama possesses incredible tonal fluidity—there are moments of tenderness within the frequent vulgarity and dark humor that blend well with the intense grimness of its subject and storytelling. Its themes of self-sacrifice and of familial love and loyalty encapsulated so much of the real Japanese culture that its director famously sought to portray all his life. The final 20-minute near-silent journey is a cinematic wonder.
Other Movies for Context: I think Imamura is one of my five favorite directors ever and so I’ve seen a lot of his work, which has been populated by characters like pimps, whores, gangsters, pornographers, etc. My favorite of his work, apart from this one, is his glorious take on the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombings, Black Rain (1988). This is followed closely by Intentions of Murder (1964), about a rapist who falls in love with his victim, and Vengeance is Mine (1979), Imamura’s grimmest and coldest picture that profiles a serial murderer. The Insect Woman (1963) offers his most interesting female character, since the movie focuses solely on her development. Pigs and Battleships (1961) and The Pornographers (1966) are both oddball movies, even by Imamura’s standards. Eijanaka (1981), meanwhile, finds Imamura at his loosest, most chill mode. All of them are worth seeking out.