On this week’s post, we’re looking at two visually striking films. One is a film done in the style of a Japanese Kabuki play, while the other is the strongest film from one of America’s most unique filmmakers.
Today’s films are:
Keisuke Kinoshita – The Ballad of Narayama (1958)
Terry Gilliam – Brazil (1985)
I’ve seen Brazil several times, and the Criterion edition with the various versions of the film is among my favorite discs. But the first time I saw The Ballad Of Narayama was at Ebertfest, the Roger Ebert film festival. Unlike many festivals where only new films are shown, the Ebertfest schedule was a mixture of new films, all-time classics, and little-known films that should be classics. This film falls into the final category.
Let’s get into it.
The Ballad of Narayama (1958)
The Ballad of Narayama is a film about a Japanese legend about the practice of ‘granny dumping’. The story goes that it was common in those days to take the elderly out of the village and leave them on a mountain to die rather than let them linger in the village, possibly soaking up resources that could be used for the young and healthy.
In the film, Tatsuhei must deal with his own mothers approaching 70th year, the traditional time when residents of the village are taken to Mount Narayama. Orin, his mother is quite happy to go, even looking forward to it, imagining that she will bask in the joy of the gods of Mount Narayama. Tatsuhei has lost his wife in the last year, and must deal with his young children and his older son Kesakichi who hates Orin and can’t wait for her to leave.
Tatsuhei on the other hand hates the idea. His mother doesn’t have any illness, and is still productive in the fields and at home. She even still has a full set of teeth, which is a point of great shame to her. In this culture, a woman of her age having a full set of teeth is a sign of greed. Kesakichi doesn’t let her forget it, singing a festive song about granny-dumping that includes a line about having extra teeth beyond the ones that she was born with.
The film is shot to resemble a kabuki play. I’m basing that statement on research I’ve done, I’m certainly no expert on the artform of kabuki. But there are a lot of interesting aspects to this film that come from the kubuki influence.
For example, the environment are somewhat realistic up close, but all set on clearly painted backgrounds. The film doesn’t attempt to use painted backgrounds as a way to trick the eye into believing it is seeing a real environment, like many films do. It clearly wants us to be in this sort of hyper-real environment. In addition, the scene transitions are fascinating. Often the background falls away, and the camera moves through into a new scene without making a cut. The GIF below gives an example.
Notice how the backdrop falls down and the lights go out. Immediately after that, the camera pushes in past the actor into a new scene. This happens several times throughout the film. Sometimes a set will separate into multiple pieces to reveal a scene occurring behind it. It’s a stunning effect, and one that we normally don’t see in film.
The colors are also intense. The director lights scenes with deep reds or greens depending on the mood and time of day he wants to portray. It’s all incredibly effective.
The film also moves incredibly slowly. We see the characters live their daily lives, fixing meals, walking down paths, and having long conversations that may or may not affect the plot. I would suspect that if this story was told in a modern format, it would fit nicely into a 30 minute television show.
But the slowness isn’t a problem, it’s a feature. It lets us explore and enjoy the backdrops and the world these characters live in. When the backdrop suddenly drops and a new scene begins, it’s a surprising moment that keeps us engaged.
The plot of the film runs essentially as you’d expect from my description. Orin, the grandmother is looking forward to go to Mount Narayama, while her son Tatsuhei dreads it. We also see a constrasting pair of people, as another old man in the village refuses to go to Narayama, and his son who is frustrated with him. We see the consequences of going against the norms of the village here, as Mata, the old man stops receiving food from his son, and his son even attempts to tie him up and force him to go to Narayama. Mata’s will is strong, and he manages to escape every time.
Mata is a pathetic figure, a constant reminder of the brutality of this tradition, and how it effects people who don’t buy into the benefits of this arrangement. Orin is kind to him, as she is kind to everyone, and urges Mata to go, but he refuses.
Another subplot involves a new wife for Tatsuhei, which Orin arranges. Tama arrives early in the film, and is immediately charmed by Orin, becoming a strong partner for Tatsuhei. She seems on his side of the conflict, as she appreciates Orin more than anyone.
There are two characters that could be seen as villains in the film. Mata’s son, who constantly antagonizes his father, trying to get him to go to Narayama. He also leads a mob against another villager who is caught stealing.
The other villain is Kesakichi, Tatsuhei’s son. He is an angry little man, constantly berating Orin and his father, never having a kind word for anyone. Dreaming of the day when Orin will go to the mountain and die. He has a young pregnant wife named Matsu, who is portrayed as dull and thoughtless. While others attempt to conserve food, she takes multiple handfuls of beans for herself before dinner has begun.
The last third of the movie focuses on Tatsuhei taking Orin up to Mount Narayama for her to die. He continually tries to make conversation, and asks her to speak, but she refuses. Taking the journey in silent contemplation.
The film ends as expected. No real surprises, just good drama, real human emotion, and incredible visuals. Not much more you can ask for from a film.
This is an amazing film, and one that is entirely unforgettable. I’m sure there are other films that use backdrops the way this film does, but it’s a rare occurrence. In addition, this film has something I’m calling a ‘songover’. Some films have a voiceover track where a character in the film explains their thoughts or contextual information. However, in the kabuki tradition, this film has singer achieving the same effect. The singer is slow, the subtitles have no trouble keeping up with his song.
What’s interesting about this songover is that the extra information is all displayed in the film. There’s rarely a moment that the songover gives us information that we could intuit via the character actions, expressions, or even dialogue.
The film also has exceptional acting. Orin is played by Kinuyo Tanaka, who starred in some of the classic Japanese films of the era, including Sansho the Bailiff, and Life of Oharu, which we’ll eventually cover here.
Everything about this film just begs to be watched. I highly encourage you to do so.
Brazil is a film about Sam Lowery, a dreamer living in a dreary authoritarian society completely taken over by bureaucracy. As an employee at the Ministry of Information, he just wants to disappear. But when he sees the woman he’s been dreaming about in real life, he’s willing to do anything to track her down and find her.
Brazil is probably Terry Gilliam’s best known films, and for good reason. It’s a complex film set in a world that while different, is all too familiar. Sam Lowery is a character that many of us can see ourselves in. He’s an average Joe with dreams of living the life that he wants to live, but has to exist in the society he’s trapped in. He has a mother who’s connected to the power structure of this society, and is ready and willing to use that influence to move him up in that power structure, but he resists, even when she makes a move without his permission.
But even though the information in the world is tightly controlled, there is massive unrest. We see it in the opening scene when a terrorist bomb blows up a storefront. Gilliam juxtaposes this with a crass ad for designer ductwork, then follows it with an interview with the minister of information, telling everyone that the terrorists are no threat at all, all through a burning television. It’s a powerful visual.
One of the strongest aspects of the film is the world building. Every aspect of the world is carefully crafted to create an overall aesthetic that you can’t ignore. There are two worlds here, the haves, and the have-nots. The have-nots are surrounded by gray at all times. They live in shoddy apartment buildings with ducts running all over and through their apartments. When the terrorists attack, they’re screaming in the streets.
The haves live in a totally different world. They’re catered to by everyone in their lives. They live in lavish apartments surrounded by beautiful things and engage in horrifying and likely expensive beauty treatments. When the terrorists attack, the haves are annoyed, and a screen is put up in between them and the carnage so they can finish their meal. They’re coddled and babied, unaware of the real world they stand above.
Sam Lowery, played by Jonathan Pryce, lives in between the two worlds. His apartment is clean, with plenty of modern advantages, like automated breakfast making machinery, and a tub that fills itself in the morning. We see that he has these things, but we’re also shown that none of it works. His alarm clock doesn’t go off, and his breakfast maker malfunctions, pouring coffee all over his toast instead of into his cup, which he doesn’t discover until it’s time to eat.
His apartment is also free of visible ductwork, putting him above the have-nots, but his world is still drab, and devoid of color, putting him below the haves. In addition, when his air conditioner goes out and he needs to have it repaired, we see behind his walls, into the nightmare of ducts and wires that reside there, we see how close he is to being one of the have-nots.
There’s an interesting subtext here. We see the thin veneer of society that hides the chaos underneath. Sam’s walls are clean, but opening up the walls ducts and wires spill out like the guts of some creature. This gets worse throughout the film as Sam insults the Central Services repairmen who spend the rest of the film antagonizing him, eventually destroying his apartment.
The air conditioning sets up one of the major subplots of the film. When Sam initially calls to have it repair, he gets a form response that they don’t do service that late. But when he receives a knock on the door shortly after, it’s not from Central Services, but from Harry Tuttle, played by Robert DeNiro. Tuttle is dressed all in black, wearing a ski mask, like a burgular. He comes in holding a gun, taking precautions. He explains that he’s in HVAC repair for the action, he doesn’t want to work for the massive bureaucracy, filling out forms. He fixes the AC in a couple of minutes and is about to leave when the real Central Services crew shows up, one of them is played by Bob Hoskins, who delights in his role as the villain. Tuttle is prepared to shoot them, but Sam manages to get them to leave by naming a form they’ll need to continue, which they haven’t brought, making a friend of Tuttle and an enemy of Central Services.
Tuttle becomes important early on the film, when we see a computer glitch change his name on a form to Buttle. We discover the importance of that immediately, as Buttle’s home is raided and he is taken away, in place of Tuttle. The rest of the film deals with this bureaucratic mistake. Buttle’s neighbor Jill takes it upon herself to wade through the forms and paperwork required to correct it. Sam Lowery sees her in the lobby and realizes she’s the woman he’s been dreaming about. His goal is clear from there, he must find her, no matter the cost. Lowery accepts his mother’s offer to get him a promotion to get a higher security clearance so he can look her up. It’s all for nothing though, as he can’t even get new information from his new security clearance. He simply runs into her as she’s trying to find out where to get another form. This moment sets off a chain reaction that drags Sam into Buttle’s case, and ends with Sam arrested.
The film is incredibly complex, so exploring the plot in too much detail would be a novel length post. But there’s a specific subplot that is really interesting. Buttle, the man wrongfully arrested dies in custody. As we’ve seen earlier in the film, every character in the bureaucracy is terrified of making a mistake. This results in everyone trying to pass the blame for Buttle’s death. All wanting to survive the experience with their reputations intact, desperate to pass the buck.
The film critiques the people that do this very harshly, never letting us forget what the consequences are of trading human compassion for orderly forms.
Another interesting bit of symbolism. Sam dreams throughout the film, and his dreams involve saving this particular woman from monsters, who he fights with a winged suit of armor and sword. But in one dream, he faces his toughest opponent, a giant samurai, covered in small computer processors. It’s clear from the context that the samurai represents the bureaucracy he has to defeat in order to rescue Jill. He is disarmed, but then manages to take the samurai’s weapon, and defeat it with that. He takes the mask off of the samurai, and finds his own face. The symbolism here is fairly clear. Sam must defeat the bureaucracy and the only way he can do that is by using it’s own weapons against it. But by defeating it, he’s also defeating himself. Also, the form this enemy takes has a bit of symbolism. Our hero’s name is Sam, and he is fighting a (Sam)urai. There’s lots of layers in this film.
Like our first film this week, Brazil is visually stunning, crafting an entire world that adds to the story. For example, all the gadgets and machines in the film are nearly impossible to use, showing us that this is a world that has forgotten about humanity. There is no design to make something easy to use to improve their lives, only something barely functional if you understand it perfectly. The background world and gadgets people have forced upon them is one of my favorite parts of the film.
The Double Feature
It’s been awhile since I’ve seen either of these movies, but both were really refreshing to see. The visuals always blow me away in both films, but as I was paying closer attention to them for this post, I was really able to get absorbed into the world’s they were creating.
Both films also show the darker side of society when compassion becomes de-emphasized. In The Ballad of Narayama, it’s about survival. Using less food for people who aren’t contributing as much means the rest of the village has a better chance of survival. In Brazil, it’s just about order. Society wants order, so they bury themselves in forms so they know that everyone must follow the rules.
It’s an interesting contrast to see between the two films. Especially from such disparate cultures. I can understand the desire for survival that led to Mount Narayama, and I can even understand the desire for order that led to Brazil. That’s what film can do for us. It gives us a window into a world and we’re able to relate our own lives to it, and see how we might react in those situations.
School starts next week. This semester I don’t have any classes to attend, which should make things feel a bit more like a normal job with tasks I have to complete before the end of the semester. That should cut down on the stress a bit. But I’ll be vigilant. Because my health is more important than a degree, no matter how close I am to completing.
So, what should we do next? Next post will be my 25th since I started. So I’d like to do something a little fun and interesting. So I’m going to do another thing that I’ve never done before. Rather than watch two films, I’m going to watch three. Next week’s films will be:
Robert Zemeckis – Back To The Future (1985)
Robert Zemeckis – Back To The Future Part 2 (1989)
Robert Zemeckis – Back To The Future Part 3 (1990)
That’s right, I’m going to watch the Back to the Future Trilogy. The first is an all-time classic, the second two are not as well-loved, particularly the third. I’ve seen them all many times, but how will they fare when compared against each other?
We’ll see next week.