The Ballad of Narayama: Social Engineering for the Generations
The Japanese films we’ll discuss are both titled The Ballad of Narayama (one from 1958 and the other from 1983). The Ballad of Narayama is a fascinating tale of a rustic Japanese village’s rigid social practice aimed at promoting youthful prosperity at the ultimate cost to the elderly. Generational conflict certainly isn’t your run of the mill dinner topic, yet it is an aspect of all societies and requires thoughtful attention to understand its impact on governmental policy decisions.
The film is based on a Japanese folklore story about a group of rural farmers struggling to meet their basic food needs, therefore they enforce a set of ancient rules to handle the fierce competition for resources. When a person reaches the ripe old age of seventy, they are carried up Narayama by their eldest son and left to die. This practice is intended to free society from the burden of feeding and caring for an unproductive member, making space for younger members to carry the mantle of society.
The story primarily involves Orin, a grandmother who is healthy and strong yet also approaching the age to go up the mountain and pass on to the other world in the proper way. Her son doesn’t want her to go, and in many ways Orin is more capable of sustaining her family than the younger generations around her.
There are actually two versions of the film, the 1958 version directed by Keisuke Kinoshita and the Shohei Imamura’s 1983 masterpiece, thus the “old versus new” battle applies both within and between the movies. Kinoshita’s 1958 version is exceptional for its stylized kabuki style of presentation. It is filmed like a stage play for the screen and takes place entirely on beautifully constructed sets. It also features an ever-present Joruri narrator who sings out the storyline in a high-pitched tone and is augmented by the playing of a three stringed samisen. The scene transitions are enthralling and utilize creative lighting and long takes featuring intricate set changes.
Imamura’s 1983 version was shot over more than a year on location in an historical village at the foot of the mountains in Nagano, Japan. Unlike the 1958 version, this one is completely shot in real village dwellings and mother nature features first as foremost as a major character in the film. The length of the shoot shows a true passing of the seasons adds to the sense of viewer participation.
Orin’s son is clearly anguished at the thought of taking his still-healthy mother up the mountain, and tries at times find subtle ways to delay the inevitable. Between the films there are not-so-subtle differences in the way that Orin is treated by those around her; in Kinoshita’s earlier film the grandson actively lobbies for the task to be done, whereas Imamura leaves the viewer with more ambiguity in determining the true desires of the younger villagers.
Politics and Art: Why you should watch these films
Aside from their magnificent artistic achievements, The Ballad of Narayama sheds a metaphorical light on many of the challenges facing our society today.
Throughout human history people were required to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy just trying to survive, and having enough to eat was never guaranteed. In the age of modern agricultural and distribution, most of the population is no longer concerned with securing food resources on a day-to-day basis. Yet the generational conflict demonstrated in the films still exists, and manifests itself in the desire to shape the flow of socio-economic resources to individuals of similar desires.
The Economist published a special report in January describing the fierce competition facing today’s workers. The article also demonstrates the effects of youth unemployment and the with the potential for an entire “lost generation”. In the west this trend is especially acute in Europe, with youth unemployment lying at almost 50 percent in Greece and Spain, 40 percent in Italy, and 25 percent in France. Labor law rigidity contributes to this, and older generations with secured jobs can crowd out younger generations for useful employment.
This practice has devastating consequences for today’s youth, and will have a major impact on the fabric of society in the long-term. After all, older generations will eventually rely upon the younger groups to sustain the economy once they retire. This has never been more true than in modern day Japan, the country of the Narayama legend. In 1950, the country’s population was 82 million, and the followed a general “pyramidal” shape that reflected a great percentage of children and adolescents at the bottom with an ever-diminishing number of older people.
Based on current birth rates and trends, in 2050 the greatest share of Japan’s population is anticipated to fall directly within the 70 to 80-year old demographic (see this useful link for help visualizing this trend, and those of other countries). This “upside-down pyramid” portends a major challenge for the country’s economic survival. As the population’s share of elderly increases, the debt-burden increasingly shifts onto the backs of an ever-shrinking share of youthful workers.
When individuals want to improve their economic prosperity, one way to achieve this is to promote policy actions that shift benefits from one group to another. Increases in school funding for K-12 students and subsidies for prescription medications for seniors compete directly for the same limited pot of government spending—or require an additional tax burden on the population.
Because government spending is limited, one person’s gain could be seen as another’s loss, and is often sold to voters in this way to gain votes. These policy battles create public opinion competitions as groups promote their agenda by demonstrating the positive externalities of their positions, while denigrating the opposition’s arguments, often resulting in generational friction.
During the current election, exit polling points to a propensity of democratic support for Bernie Sanders among the millennial generation, whereas Hillary Clinton tends to do well with older voters. There are many issues that determine this trend, yet it is no big secret that Bernie Sanders supports free college education—a major economic issue for younger voters.
The Ballad of Narayama – which film should you watch?
The short answer is both! The long answer is “both” as well, because the films complementary and different enough in style that they benefit from being viewed in close succession. I suggest watching the 1983 version first; Imamura’s film is more hard-edged and better demonstrates the desperation that dictates the lives of the villagers. Its added length and content also enriches the story more for first time views.
Kinoshita’s version is shorter and truly benefits from the knowledge gained after watching Imamura’s film. Therefore, watching it seconds frees the viewer to focus more on the artistry of the staging and less on trying to decipher the finer points of the storyline.
Where to watch them:
Imamura’s 1983 movie requires a more resourceful search because it’s unavailable to stream, and can only be purchased on Blu-ray in a magnificent Region B boxed set of the director’s films produced by Eureka!
Here are links to two trailers, the first from the 1983 version of the film:
Hollywood on the Hill examines the intersection of art and politics, using film to help us better understand the world around us.