Life was pretty rough in remote regions of Japan, especially for women and children, as well as everyone not the head-of-household, and communities often struggled to maintain a balance that threatened to collapse with poor harvests or difficult times. The plight of poor Japanese is well represented in Imamura’s The Ballad of Narayama (1983), an award-winning movie of heartrending insight and beautiful cinematography. Too many mouths to feed can result in infanticide (or a child being sold away, which I understand is still a common practice in places such as Thailand and Cambodia), and the aged (anyone making it to 70) are expected to take a pilgrimage to the sacred mountain where they are exposed to the elements and left to die (sometimes unwillingly). The social structure that privileged heads of household, left the young and female vulnerable, and relegated most everyone to inferior status. Younger brothers could only hope for hard work, deference, and occasional opportunities for happiness (for example, sex). Ballad is primarily about a grandmother, embarrassed by her good fortune in health, who is approaching her own trip to the mountainside (willingly) and is tying up loose ends and preparing a new daughter-in-law for her role as a matriarch. The movie pulls few punches and openly shows the realities of infanticide, patricide, violence, deviant sexuality, hardship, and misogyny. Yet, it also shows the high level of responsibility, sacrifice, cooperation, humor, and order that kept total destruction at bay.
For a foreign viewer or individual not well versed in Japanese culture (such as myself), this movie can be a troubling experience. The punishment of an entire family (being buried alive) for stealing is partially understandable in a society whose existence is so close to the edge, but it was extreme and cruel, especially to the innocent victims (as it seems the actions of one family member is applied to the entire clan). Women have little say in how they are sexually treated. Children, especially girls, are treated little better than calves (an opportunity to make money). The scene where the salt merchant is marching away a small group of children is emotionally heartrending. A widow forced to have sex with the lesser males in the community to atone for the sin of her husband is appalling. The film does show what the domestic life was like, unvarnished.
I am amazed that no one got frostbite in this film. I also thought it interesting that there seemed to be no official (ie, police or local government) presence portrayed. The photography is often beautifully done, though the interspersed nature scenes were roughly cut in, and there seemed to be a special interest in snakes (all seemingly trying to relate that what was going on in the village was just part of the natural order of things). The acting was excellent, especially Sumiko Sakamoto as grandmother Orin.