I didn’t know there are two versions of this and proceeded to watch the 1958 one first. The Ballad of Narayama is a period drama directed by Keisuke Kinoshita. The feature film explores the practice of obasute. The story is heartrending – a mother, who will be turning 71 in the coming year, prepares to make a trip to Narayama to die, so that the family will have one less mouth to feed. This 1958 version is done in Kabuki theatre-style which means expositional passages are sung. The final act in which the filial son caught in between his mother’s wishes and village traditions is very moving. This is a very spiritual film and it is impossible to not think about one’s own mother and what she has sacrificed for us.
Then I decided to also watch the 1983 version since it is the one stated in the list. This is again a masterful film by director Shōhei Imamura. It stars Sumiko Sakamoto as Orin, Ken Ogata, and Shoichi Ozawa. There are some interesting deviations but the spine is largely the same. It is just as powerful and deeply moving. The final scene of the mother seated among the skeletons is seared into my consciousness. This is a very human film and it will make you think about committing suicide for the betterment of others. It will also make you ponder about the extreme of how much we love another. There can be grace in death.
The Burmese Harp (1956) is a black-and-white Japanese film directed by Kon Ichikawa. It was based on a children’s novel of the same name written by Michio Takeyama. It was Ichikawa’s first film to be shown outside Japan, and is “one of the first films to portray the decimating effects of World War II from the point of view of the Japanese army.” The film was nominated for the 1957 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, during the first year that such a category existed. This one may be rather dated but the power of the story is still very potent. How I know? My tears started streaming down during the scene when the captain reads out a letter by a comrade who chooses not to go back to Japan. The story is about a conscience-stricken Japanese soldier named Mizushima who frequently plays the harp to entertain his fellow soldiers. He is tasked by his captain to go into the mountains to try to convince Japanese troops to surrender since the war is over. Mizushima fails in the task. Deeply affected he becomes a Buddhist monk and intends to bury all the dead Japanese soldiers in Burma. His character arc is superbly drawn, especially when he first steals the Buddhist monk’s clothes to ease his way back to his friends. In that sense, the story reminds me of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. I love how Ichikawa doesn’t use a straight narrative trajectory to tell his story and the point of flashback is amazingly used. Love how the harp music is used so purposely. This is masterful storytelling.
In Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), Kikunosuke, son of the famous actor Kikugoro, is openly praised for his performance on the stage. His success is actually due to his name; only Otoku, the wet-nurse of his brother, is sincere enough to tell him the truth about his acting, and also her faith in his ultimate talent. Kikunosuke falls in love with Otoku, but the possible mesalliance provokes the wrath of Kikugoro, whereupon Kikunosuke leaves his family to try to become an accomplished actor by himself, without the protection afforded by his father’s reputation. This is a sublime and devastating film, filled with artful languid long takes. The shots don’t pull in close, but stay a distance away for you to observe the romance and social behaviour of that period. It is a quiet, but powerful film and it epitomises a “less is more” approach. It also portrays a woman who dares to say the “most difficult to listen to” words so that the listener would become better and how she does it is very moving. The tragedy at the end is arresting and heartbreaking.