Narayama Bushiko opens to the obscured face of a joruri narrator against an oddly colorful curtain backdrop announcing the commencement of the play, Narayama Bushiko, based on the ancient legend of Obasute, to the distinctive sound of a shamisen from the traditional nagauta accompaniment. The curtains are pulled to the side to reveal a strangely surreal and highly formalized setting of an ancient tribal village. A solemn, aging woman named Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) curiously approaches the edge of a large earthenware vessel, momentarily hesitating, before being distracted by the approach of a messenger. Orin receives word that a recent widow named Tamayan (Yûko Mochizuki) is eligible for marriage to her widowed son, Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi). It is welcomed news for the gracious and dignified Orin who sees Tamayan’s arrival into the household as a means of passing on her domestic obligations to the family in preparation for her ascent to Mount Narayama in the coming year. Traditional customs dictate that the village elders be carried to the summit of Narayama upon reaching the age of 70 in order to maintain the population balance and ensure the survival of the community. Tatsuhei’s son, Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa) disapproves of his father’s remarriage, arguing that as the eldest son, he is entitled to marry his impregnated lover, a burdensome, selfish, and incompetent housekeeper named Matsuyan (Keiko Ogasawara). On the day of the Narayama festival, a hungry and apprehensive Tamayan arrives at Orin’s house and is eagerly greeted by Orin. Orin’s kindness and generosity touches Tamayan deeply, and she develops genuine affection for her new mother-in-law. However, in order to accommodate the recent additions to the family, Orin decides to perform a harrowing personal sacrifice – eliminating the tenacious symbol of her vitality that has become the object of ridicule by the younger generations – and initiates the sacred ritual for her inevitable journey to Narayama.
Based on the novel by Shichiro Fukuzawa, Narayama Bushiko is a haunting and deeply affecting portrait of love and humanity struggling against the rigidity of tradition, obedience, and sense of duty. Using jarring, anachronistic imagery and unusually stylized artificial lighting, Keisuke Kinoshita presents a relevant examination of the pervasive national ideology of wartime Japan that underscores the dichotomous, and often self-destructive conflict between personal conscience and social conformity: the idiosyncratic fusion of traditional (kabuki) and modern (film) dramatic media; the perversion of cultural and moral norms within the primitive society (disrespect for elders, disposability of life, regression of human logic into base instincts for survival); and the incongruous, final shot that juxtaposes ancient and contemporary images to evoke timelessness, passage, and transience. Inevitably, Narayama Bushiko becomes a haunting allegory on the perils of blind allegiance, martyrdom, and repression – a humanist reflection of the profound introspection, cultural erosion, and ideological ambivalence of postwar Japan.
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