A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Ballad of Narayama (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1958)

Kinuyo Tanaka in The Ballad of Narayama
Orin: Kinuyo Tanaka
Tatsuhei: Teiji Takahashi
Tama: Yuko Mochizuki
Kesakichi: Danko Ichikawa
Matsu: Keiko Ogasawara
Mata: Seiji Miyaguchi
Mata's Son: Yunosuke Ito
Teru: Ken Mitsuda

Director: Keisuke Kinoshita
Screenplay: Keisuke Kinoshita
Based on a novel by Shichiro Fukazawa
Cinematography: Hiroshi Kusuda
Art direction: Chiyoo Umeda
Film editing: Yoshi Sugihara
Music: Chuji Kinoshita, Matsunosuke Nozawa

Keisuke Kinoshita was so prolific a filmmaker, so freewheeling in his choice of subject, so willing to try something different with each film, that it's tempting to dismiss him as a kind of dilettante. And too often, his attempts at pathos come off as sentimental, even banal. But if he has a masterwork in his oeuvre, it's The Ballad of Narayama, a highly stylized account of life in a medieval Japanese village in which old people, when they reach the age of 70, are taken up the mountain and left there to die. I know nothing of kabuki, but the style of the film is often likened to that traditional Japanese theater. What I do know is that Kinoshita is one of the few directors who have managed to make film feel theatrical, to give us the intimacy of theater with the flexibility of film. The Ballad of Narayama is carefully, deliberately staged, using sets that are obviously on soundstages with trees and plants that emulate nature but are clearly artificial. I kept being reminded, oddly, of the MGM musical Brigadoon (Vincente Minnelli, 1954), which was originally planned to be filmed in Scotland, and later on the Monterey Peninsula in California, but was moved into a Culver City soundstage thanks to budget cuts. Kinoshita, who had often made spectacular use of actual Japanese locations, wasn't forced by the budget to give his film such an artificial look but rather chose it. And it works: There's a formal quality to the film that suits its story, a distancing that makes the harshness of its fable so effective. The film also benefits from the performance of the great actress Kinuyo Tanaka as Orin, whose dignified acceptance of her fate becomes heartbreaking. Her own grandson, Kesakichi, scorns her as just another mouth to feed, and mocks her with a song about a woman with demon teeth, whereupon Orin takes a rock and smashes her own teeth to demonstrate her good intentions. Tanaka makes this horrifying scene plausible, as she does the final submission to the abandonment at Narayama. She's well supported by Teiji Takahashi as her grieving, dutiful son.

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