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The Ballad of Narayama(1958)
This haunting, kabuki-inflected version of a Japanese folk legend is set in a remote mountain village where food is scarce and tradition dictates that citizens who have reached their seventieth year must be carried to the summit of Mount Narayama and left there to die.
For more about The Ballad of Narayama and the The Ballad of Narayama Blu-ray release, see the The Ballad of Narayama Blu-ray Review published by Dr. Svet Atanasov on January 7, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: Kinuyo Tanaka, Teiji Takahashi, Yûko Mochizuki, Seiji Miyaguchi, Eijirô Tôno, Ken Mitsuda
Director: Keisuke Kinoshita
» See full cast & crew
The Ballad of Narayama Blu-ray Review
Reviewed by Dr. Svet Atanasov, January 7, 2013
Winner of Best Film, Best Director and Best Actress Kinema Junpo Awards, Japanese director Keisuke Kinoshita's "Narayama bushiko" a.k.a "The Ballad of Narayama" (1958) arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion. The only supplemental features on the disc are original Japanese trailer and teaser for the film. The release also arrives with an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by critic Philip Kemp. In Japanese, with optional English subtitles for the main feature. Region-A "locked".
The film is set in a 19th century Japanese village somewhere in the North, close to the legendary Mount Narayama. Here people live simple lives, typically spending most of their time trying to collect enough food so that they could survive the long winters. They also follow strict rules and respect ancient traditions.
One of these ancient traditions dictates that those who reach the age of 70 must climb the snowy crags of Mount Narayama to meet the powerful Gods. Encouraged by their relatives and friends, many elderly men and women make the journey - and freeze to death. Their families are then honored with special rituals.
In a few weeks it will be Orin's (Kinuyo Tanaka, Kenji Mizoguchi's The Life of Oharu) turn to climb Mount Narayama. She has been planning the journey for a long time, but before she leaves she wants to see her son Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi, Equinox Flower) remarry. Fortunately, Tama (Yuko Mochizuki, Mikio Naruse's Late Chrysanthemums), a middle-aged woman from a nearby village, has already agreed to become Tatsuhei's wife and Orin is eagerly awaiting her arrival.
Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa, A Matter of Valor), Orin's grandson, already has a wife and the two are expecting a baby. This, however, is a serious problem for the family because the young woman is constantly hungry and they still don't have enough food to survive the winter. This is why Kesakichi has been urging Orin to climb Mount Narayama earlier, hoping that her share of the food will go to his pregnant wife.
Eventually, Tama appears and Orin welcomes her in the family. Impressed by her hospitality, Tatsuhei's future wife quickly confesses that she is disappointed that Orin will not be around much longer so that she could get to know her better. But she understands why the elderly woman will soon have to leave – traditions must be respected. When Tatsuhei returns home and meets Tama, his heart sinks – the arrival of a new woman in the family now guarantees that his mother will have to die.
Japanese director Keisuke Kinoshita's The Ballad of Narayama is essentially a very elaborate play firmly rooted in the traditions of kabuki and bunraku theater. It was completed in 1958 and it was the first Japanese feature film that was shot on Fuji color negative.
The film impresses primarily with its massive stage decors and complex color lighting. As the story progresses, the stage spins and the actors move from one location to another. Somewhere in the back, a singer/narrator also routinely addresses the key conflicts in the film.
The unusually lush and bright lights give the film a very unique surrealistic look. Excluding the traditional dances and the excellent singing, at times it almost feels like one is watching an experimental film shot by a Japanese director heading in the same direction Jean-Luc Godard would in a couple of years. This is how modern The Ballad of Narayama looks.
The cast is rather small. Unsurprisingly, the camera spends a great deal of time following the key characters. Interestingly enough, however, there is a limited amount of close-ups. Most of the important interactions between Orin, Tatsuhei, Kesakichi, and Tama are typically observed from afar.
The great Japanese director Shohei Imamura filmed a notably more violent and realistic remake of The Ballad of Narayama in 1983. For years, this film, which won the prestigious Palme d'Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival, was also a lot easier to see outside of Japan. (It is currently available on Blu-ray courtesy of British distributors Eureka Entertainment. You could read our review here).
The Ballad of Narayama Blu-ray, Video Quality
Presented in an aspect ratio of 2.39:1, encoded with MPEG-4 AVC and granted a 1080p transfer, Keisuke Kinoshita's The Ballad of Narayama arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion.
Update 2: I received a second note from Criterion, which I have included below:
"There's not a problem with the encode of the Criterion DVD or Blu-ray release of THE BATTLE OF NARAYAMA. What is perceived to be an encoding error is actually inherent to the surviving film elements and the restored materials. It is also present in the 2007 Tartan UK release. The Criterion version is consistent with the Shochiku restoration that premiered at Cannes last year, which was the basis for the Criterion release."
Update: I received a market version of The Ballad of Narayama. Unfortunately, the error also appears on it.
Note: There appears to be some sort of an encoding error on the disc I was sent to review. Starting at around 00.36.00, for approximately 28 seconds it looks like the data on the disc becomes extremely difficult to read and the film essentially begins stuttering. However, the sound does not appear to be affected. After the aforementioned 28 seconds, everything goes back to normal. I tested the disc on four different players and observed the same issue. Since I do not yet have a market version of this release, I am going to assume that it is only my screener that is affected. I have contacted Criterion's team to inform them about the defect and will update the review once I get a response.
The following text appears inside the booklet provided with this Blu-ray release:
"This new digital master was produced from the 2011 restoration done by Shochiku studios and Imagica. For the restoration, a scan was created in 4K resolution on an Imagica IMAGER scanner from a 35 mm interpositive wetgate printed from the original camera negative; the original negative could not be scanned directly due to excessive damage. The restoration work was then performed in 2K resolution.
Image restoration supervisor: Ryuichiro Kiyatake.
Sound restoration supervisors: Ryuji Matsumoto, Kazunori Shimizu.
Colorist: Eiji Ishibashi/Imagica Tokyo."
Recently restored in 4K by Shochiku Co., Ltd., with technical support by Imagica Corp. and Imagica West Corp., with the final digital restoration supervised by assistant cameraman Ryuichiro Kiyatake and sound designer Ryuji Matsumoto, The Ballad of Narayama looks very impressive. The few close-ups in the film boast outstanding depth and terrific delineation (see screencapture #14), while the darker sequences convey excellent clarity, allowing one to see even extremely small objects despite the fact that bright light is often restricted (see screencapture #9). Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the new restoration, however, is the unusually wide range of rich colors. The Ballad of Narayama was the first film to be shot on Fuji color negative in Japan and it is extremely easy to see now that it was meant to impress - the blues, greens, browns, grays, and especially the reds are exceptionally well saturated, at times looking almost unnaturally rich and vibrant. There are no traces of excessive degraining. Edge-enhancement is also not an issue of concern. During two different nighttime sequences, however, I noticed some light compression artifacts. (See the sequence where Orin shows Tama where her secret fishing spot is - screencapture #16). Finally, there are no serious stability issues. All in all, the new restoration of The Ballad of Narayama is easily the very best I have seen to date for a classic Japanese film. (Note: This is a Region-A "locked" Blu-ray disc. Therefore, you must have a native Region-A or Region-Free PS3 or SA in order to access its content).
The Ballad of Narayama Blu-ray, Audio Quality
There is only one standard audio track on this Blu-ray disc: Japanese LPCM 1.0. For the record, Criterion have provided optional English subtitles for the main feature. When turned on, they appear inside the image frame.
The narration and the prominent singing are consistently well rounded and notably crisp. The dance celebrations also impress with excellent fluidity. It is obvious that the dialog has also been stabilized and cleaned up as best as possible because there isn't even a whiff of background hiss. Also, there are no pops or distortions to report in this review.
The Ballad of Narayama Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Ballad of Narayama Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Filmed almost entirely on massive studio sets, Keisuke Kinoshita's The Ballad of Narayama is an unusually colorful film. Stylistically, it has little in common with Shohei Imamura's great remake, a much more violent and realistic film, but it is just as mesmerizing to behold. The presentation of the film's recent 4K restoration by Shochiku Co., Ltd. in the Classics section of the Cannes Film Festival was probably a spectacular event. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
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The Ballad of Narayama Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Criterion Announces February Titles - November 15, 2012
The Criterion Collection has announced five titles for Blu-ray release in February. On February 5, the studio will release The Ballad of Narayama (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1958). A week later, it will release The Kid With a Bike (Dardenne Brothers, 2011). On February ...
The Ballad of Narayama Blu-ray Screenshots
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