The Ballad of Narayama
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. The sacrificial elder at the center of the tale is Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka), a dignified and dutiful woman who spends her dwindling days securing the happiness of her loyal widowed son with a respectable new wife. Filmed almost entirely on cunningly designed studio sets, in brilliant color and widescreen, The Ballad of Narayama is a stylish and vividly formal work from Japan’s cinematic golden age, directed by the dynamic Keisuke Kinoshita.
Criterion presents Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1958 film The Ballad of Narayama to Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on a dual-layer disc. The film is presented in 1080p/24hz.
Other than one obvious and unfortunate fault we do get a particularly stunning transfer. Objects on screen are clearly defined, with sharply defined edges and finer details clearly rendered. Film grain is present but not at all heavy, and the transfer handles it well, keeping it natural and clean without any noise. Colours look particularly beautiful, every colour leaping off screen. Reds, sometimes a troublesome colour, look especially pure. Black levels are strong as well and darker scenes are still fairly easy to see.
The print is in excellent condition and I actually don’t recall a single blemish. And the transfer for the most part keeps the image clean and free of any artifacts. There is one location, though, that does present a problem. At about 00:36:04, the beginning of chapter 7, the image begins to stutter and jitter in a similar manner to how a video might stream over a slow internet connection. It begins when a character jumps and then lasts over 20-seconds as the camera pans by a number of trees. It’s unfortunately not something you can overlook and the issue does call attention to itself. It’s an unfortunate artifact, and one I hope Criterion is able to address in the future, but I wouldn’t consider it a deal breaker since everything else about the transfer is perfectly fine and frankly quite gorgeous.
It can get a bit edgy when music or singing is present but the Japanese Linear PCM 1.0 mono track delivers a clear and clean presentation. Dialogue sounds natural and range is pretty impressive for an older one-channel track.
This is a budget release so there isn’t much to speak of on here other than a theatrical trailer and a teaser trailer. Philip Kemp does provide an excellent essay in the included booklet, going over Kinoshita’s career, the film itself, its ambiguous ending, and even makes comparisons to Shohei Imamura’s 1983.
It’s such a unique and experimental film that more material would have been welcome, but the booklet does add some value and is worth going through.
There is an issue with the transfer that is sadly very noticeable: a jitter effect that lasts at least 20-seconds. Those concerned about this may want to hold off in picking it up to see if Criterion corrects this or if another release becomes available elsewhere. The transfer is otherwise quite lovely and makes up for the lack any supplementary materials.