GREAT MOVIE

Roger Ebert became film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967. He is the only film critic with a star on Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame and was named honorary life member of the Directors’ Guild of America. He won the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Screenwriters’ Guild, and honorary degrees from the American Film Institute and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Since 1989 he has hosted Ebertfest, a film festival at the Virginia Theater in Champaign-Urbana. From 1975 until 2006 he, Gene Siskel and Richard Roeper co-hosted a weekly movie review program on national TV. He was Lecturer on Film for the University of Chicago extension program from 1970 until 2006, and recorded shot-by-shot commentaries for the DVDs of “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca,” “Floating Weeds” and “Dark City,” and has written over 20 books.

The Ballad of Narayama (楢山節考, Narayama bushikō) is a 1983 Japanese film by director Shōhei Imamura. It stars Sumiko Sakamoto as Orin, Ken Ogata, and Shoichi Ozawa. It is an adaptation of the book Narayama bushikō by Shichirō Fukazawa[1] and slightly inspired by the 1958 film directed by Keisuke Kinoshita. It won the Palme d’Or at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival
The Ballad of Narayama movie poster


 Roger Ebert October 25, 1983  

The rules in the village are simple. When you reach the age of 70, you must go up to the top of Narayama mountain and wait there until you die. “The Ballad of Narayama” is about an old woman whose time has almost arrived, and who is determined to take care of her family’s unfinished business before she goes to the mountaintop. Most of that business concerns finding wives for her sons.

Stated that simply, “The Ballad of Nayarama” sounds like humanism crossed with anthropology, sort of a “Woman in the Dunes” (1964) about death. But this movie is much more passionate than I’ve made it sound: darker, bloodier, more fearsome. It was directed by Shohei Imamura, whose films deal with the ways we pass laws to govern our deepest impulses, and then are driven to break those laws.

We see a poor village in the mountains, many years ago. It is a beautiful setting, a postcard, but life is raw and hard. The people work the fields in their bare feet, plowing the land and raising only enough potatoes and rice to barely feed themselves. Everybody knows everybody else’s business.

That is particularly true of the old mother of the most important family. She is tireless, stubborn, willful. She wants to find wives for her sons. She turns up one wife – a new widow from across the valley – and shares her favorite recipes and the secret places in the river where you can catch fish with your bare hands. But this new wife turns out to be not quite the catch she seemed.

Meanwhile, another son, a universally scorned and hapless man known as the “stinker,” creeps about the village, eavesdropping. He learns that a dying man asked his wife to sleep with every man in the village at least once. This seems to be the stinker’s chance, but it’s not: The dead man’s spirit turns into a butterfly that returns to advise against the stinker.

Another son makes love with the daughter of a neighboring family, and gets her pregnant. But then the girl’s father is exposed as a thief, and, in the movie’s strongest and most painful image, the entire family is buried alive as punishment.

The final passages of the film have the oldest son taking his old mother up to the mountaintop. She is not sick and she is not about to die, but she is a woman of great determination and she demands to go to the mountaintop.

“The Ballad of Narayama” won the grand prize at Cannes, but it’s not the sort of film that becomes a hit, even on the art film circuit. It’s too introspective, too unblinking in the face of cruelty, too “Japanese.” That makes it all the more a fascinating experience.

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