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Criterion's new high-def edition of Keisuke Kinoshita's kabuki melodrama is gorgeous, but the film itself still comes up a little short....
Criterion / 98 Minutes / 1958 / Unrated / Street Date: February 5, 2013
There are parallels that could be constructed between Douglas Sirk and Keisuke Kinoshita, especially when it comes to the brightly-colored fantasia The Ballad of Narayama, new to Criterion Blu-ray this week. The pace of Kinoshita’s kabuki melodrama is often cripplingly slow, but the way the director juggles the past with the present, dissecting issues large and small hearken back to Sirk’s weepy narratives in very profound fashions.
Especially through the lens of hindsight, The Ballad of Narayama plays as a movie heavily, almost glacially infused with the sadness of war. It would take a doctoral thesis to specifically peruse the echoes of 1950s post-WWII Japanese society with the paradigms of storytelling at play here, but Kinoshita’s tale of a woman in a small village trying to find a new wife for her widowed son has a familiarity to it that goes above and beyond just being a fictional tale.
The push/pull most feverishly felt is the desire for noble simplicity being slapped in the face by a modernity, a social progress that simply won’t go away. There is beauty aplenty here – Criterion really does a sensational job of preserving the movie’s heavy-on-orange visual feel on this high-def edition – but we get the feeling that poor old Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) is literally watching the world she once knew crumble to pieces around her, and she doesn’t know how to process this collective evolution.
As ideologically profound as The Ballad of Narayama can be, however, Kinoshita’s laboriously snail-paced sense of timing make the movie hard to get through, even though it only runs a little over ninety minutes. The cinematography here is spectacular, and there’s obviously a lot going on under the hood within the movie’s social and historical models, but Narayama – while frequently fascinating – is never revelatory or entertainingly vivid as a standalone narrative. But it looks marvelous: let’s focus on that…