Japanese Sense of Death in “The Ballad of Narayama”
How come Japanese are indifferent to death and how a "hardcore" movie reflects main problems of modern Japanese society.
Japanese indifference to death has always terrified the Europeans. Just remember samurai who committed ritual suicides – seppuku. Or kamikaze who got on the nerves of thousands of American soldiers. At first sight their actions seem heroic. However if you look into the ethnopsychology of the Japanese it becomes clear that they consider death to be a usual inevitability that also has a practical purpose. So there is nothing heroic in deliberate death from the Japanese point of view.
This aspect of Japanese mind is excellently displayed in Imamura Shouhei's "The Ballad of Narayama". This movie which came out in 1983 is a remake of a Keisuke Kinoshite's movie of the same name made in 1958. The plot of the film is based on Shichirou Fukuzawa's "Narayama bushiko". Everything happens in the XIX century in a small village the citizens of which are always on the brink of starvation. Their way of life is that "spare" children are left in the rice fields, thieves are buried alive, old men are left to die on Mt. Narayama. The main value is not life but rice and working hands.
Obviously not all the citizens like that. The movie shows tragic fates of people who tried to oppose the traditions with feelings: marry for love, save lives of own children, not kill own parents.
The movie also helps to understand such Japanese feature as collectivism. If your own interest contradicts the communal one, you should give up on yours in order not to breathe upon your family's reputation. Considering that death is traditionally more acceptable than disgrace, a group's well-being is usually achieved through a personal tragedy. Despite the fact that movie characters lived more than 100 years ago and nowadays nobody is starving and using children as fertilizers you can easily notice the reference to one of the main problems of modern Japanese society: suppression of individuality.
The movie is really ambiguous and in spite of getting the Golden palm of the Cannes film festival 1983 it received a lot of critical reviews claiming that "The Ballad of Narayama" is brutal and immoral as well. It's worth noting that it's often that Japanese movies are characterized like that (e.g. "In The Realm of Senses" by Nagisa Oshima or "Crows Zero" by Takashi Miike). Personally I think this is all about the European perception of death as a horrible and inevitable event and the indifference to it as low and sinful. Hence the assessment of such movies. We should also note that brutality is a usual feature for Eastern cinematography.
Those viewers who are fond of Japanese culture and wish to watch something "not mainstream" and "hardcore" will definitely estimate "The Ballad of Narayama's" true worth.