The Ballad of Narayama
With its documentary naturalism, earthy sense of humor, and a keen ethnographical eye for the absurdities of human behavior, The Ballad of Narayama represents the epitome of director Shohei Imamura's (Zegen, Black Rain) vigorous explorations of the Japanese spirit, and won the director his first of his two Palme d'Or awards when it played in competition at Cannes in 1983.
In a remote mountain village dominated by poverty, hunger, and hardship, tradition dictates that upon reaching their seventieth year, the elder members of the community are carried to the top of Mount Narayama by their relatives and abandoned to die so as to keep the local population in check. At the age of sixty-nine, Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto, The Pornographers), the matriarch of the Neko family, posesses more vitality and more teeth than many of the villagers half her age. As her time approaches, she nevertheless sets about putting her house in order and preparing her eldest son Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata, Zegen) to accompany her on her one-way ascent to the summit.
Adapted from Shichiro Fukazawa's 1956 source novella Narayama bushiko, itself based on the ancient local folktale Ubasute-yama, The Ballad of Narayama was shot on location over the course of a year, the breathtaking cinematography by Masao Tochizawa capturing the majestic landscapes of the northern Tohoku region across the seasons.
Arrow Academy presents a new Blu-ray edition for Shohei Imamura’s take on The Ballad of Narayama, delivered here in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The dual-layer disc is (currently only) available in their box set Survivor Ballads: Three Films by Shohei Imamura. The master was supplied to Arrow by Toei, who have apparently sourced it from the 35mm negative, and it has been encoded here at 1080p/24hz.
The notes don’t indicate this, but my understanding is that the restoration was done in 2K, though whether that is true or not the final presentation is a mixed bag. While I found the image more pleasing than the region B Masters of Cinema disc—which used a dated master—there has been a generous amount of noise reduction applied to the image that does impact detail and lead to a flatter looking picture. I have to guess this is inherent to the supplied master not something Arrow did since Arrow is usually good at leaving things be. Even though detail levels aren't too bad, with some close-ups and long shots look decent enough, there is a waxiness to the image that ends up just flattening everything while giving the picture more of a digital look.
Other aspects are good, though. Damage has been reduced compared to the MoC edition, with only a few minor blemishes remaining. Colours are also beautifully saturated and rich, outside of a couple of sequences where they become muted (intentionally). Black levels end up being a bit mixed themselves, looking good during brighter scenes, but they get a bit heavy and murky in darker sequences and they end up crushing out some of the shadow detail. A handful of nature shots also take on a dupey look, leading to weaker blacks.
The image is, in the end, okay, and probably better than the older UK edition, but the noise reduction sucks out most of the texture and it has a more processed, flat look. Thankfully, this is not representative of the entire set.
The film’s original monaural Japanese soundtrack is delivered in lossless 1.0 PCM. It’s clean and serviceable, no heavy damage or distortion, with a little bit of range and decent fidelity. But that's about all I can really say about it.
Arrow brings in the heavy guns for this release, Japanese cinema experts Jasper Sharp and Tony Rayns, to participate in the supplements found on this title and the other titles in the box set, Sharp providing an audio commentary and Rayns sitting for an interview (though he calls it an “introduction” that ends up running 48-minutes). For his commentary Sharp goes a little over the production and the difficult shoot (which was done in the remote mountain area over the course of a year) before looking at how Imamura’s usual touches and style come out through the film, from its often offbeat characters and sense of humour to the editing and what he chooses to focus on, like the various nature shots. He also talks a little about the original legend and novel (with mention of Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1958 take on the material) and also explains some cultural elements in the film that might confuse Western audiences. I have yet to listen to Sharp’s other commentaries in the set, but this one starts things off nicely.
For his contribution it does sound like Rayns maybe intended on just doing a short introduction but then just couldn’t stop himself. Rayns focus is more towards the production and the general story, with some discussion about the film’s look, the story on which it’s based, the performances within it, and the time of its release. Though both Rayns and Sharp touch on some similar subjects they go in different directions and surprisingly very little is repeated between the two.
Arrow then includes two teaser trailers (one of which has footage of the director) and two theatrical trailers, along with a self-playing image gallery—that also allows you to jump through using chapter stops—featuring a number of production photos, both colour and black & white. Accessible using a BD-ROM drive, the disc also holds a 83MB PDF file containing scans of the original press book for the film. It’s in great shape (some wear is evident on the sides) and loaded with a lot of photos (most of which I believe are in the on-disc gallery). The text is in Japanese, of course, so for those not able to read Japanese (like me) you’re out of luck. Despite that, it’s still a great little inclusion.
Not packed, but Rayns’ and Sharp’s contributions still elevate the material a great deal.
Decent looking restoration is unfortunately marred by noise reduction. Supplements appear slim, but both Sharp and Rayns pack in a lot of great information around the film.