I was rereading chapter 1 of Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s book AGEWISE : The Eskimo On the Ice Floe. At the back of my mind lurked vague thoughts about a film group.  I decided to revisit The Ballad of Narayama which has the same theme as the Eskimo on the floe. I had shown the Imamura film of this title to an ‘Old Women in Film’ group a few years ago. I remember that we all took the Japanese practice of ‘obasute’ (literally abandoning the old woman but now generalised to the old) as historical fact. This custom allegedly consisted of  abandoning the old when they reach  70 to die on a mountain top.  I had at the time looked very superficially at the Kinoshita 1958 version and took no interest in it.

Researching the two films with Gullette in mind, I read that the practice is not supported by evidence but has the status a folk myth. I reviewed the Kinoshita film and found it extraordinary. It offered the valuable quality of distanciation whereas Imamura’s realist approach does trick one into believing in its veracity. I thought it would be an ideal film to start our film group. I am always anxious before showing a film that I praise, in case I am unable to share my enthusiasms. I did introduce the film by saying that we had to look at it without being imprisoned by the conventions of classical films so that it did not take my friends by surprise as it did  me on my first viewing.  The film was appreciated by the 9 of us and a lively discussion ensued.

I feared  that the apparent simplicity of the narrative would bore me on this third viewing but I soon achieved a state of contemplation and the subtleties of the direction became more apparent. The slow pace, long  shots and long takes give space to reflect about the contrasts between the harsh material life and human emotions. The routine incessant backbreaking daily work and scarcity of food, alternate with  acts of compassion and generosity. The transgression of community rules by one member of a family leads to the whole family being punished.  Orin accepts with grace a custom that will lead to her own death and prepares for her disappearance. Her main male counterpart fights abjectly with his son to avoid this fate and both die in the struggle.  We are not faced with the shocking view of Orin breaking her own teeth to demonstrate her age but have to guess  by the view of the back of her body moving in pain.  The slight hand gesture of Orin on her son’s  back ascending the mountain is hardly perceivable in a long shot but very powerful in expressing her desire to encourage her son to carry on the fatal journey.

I will leave for now a more detailed analysis of the contrasts and contradictions of this film  but I must mention that  Orin’s self-sacrifice foretells the report 50 years later:’With its population ageing faster than any other country, Japan is faced with a dramatic rise in the number of suicidal and depressed elderly…’

What I would like to focus on is Gullette’s influence on how I perceived the film. For a start, the knowledge that there is no evidence that the practice of abandonment was practiced  changed my perspective and the style of the Kinoshita  film encouraged a certain detachment.   When we discussed the Imamura film in a group there was in me a tacit acceptance of the Obasute practice in certain circumstances. I found Kinoshita’s style too foreign and dismissed it. Viewing Kinoshita’ s version now I cannot but see in it a  commentary about ageing and ageism  that I experience here and now.

‘Burden’, ‘Scarce Resources’, ‘Crisis in Social Care’:  Not one week passes without the mention in our media of our ageing population and  its drain on our scarce resources and the bleak future ahead. Yet we know that it is not a lack or resources but the lack of political will that operates. Not one week passes without reports of the way that old people are abused, neglected, isolated. The old, frail and vulnerable are invisible.  On the other hand the European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity Between Generations has just ended.  We had 12 months of images of glamorous grandmothers and celebrities,  implanted teeth smiles,  and ‘still doing it’ workshops exhorting us on how to live our ageing lives. There seems to be no space between active, hectic productive life and death. Our real ageing lives are not represented in any media. Orin too provides,  works and cares and on reaching 70 decides it is time to prepare for death. Hounded  Orin,  needs to break her own teeth to gain her right to die.   Reviewers interpret Orin’s full set of teeth as a threat to the community because she can eat a lot and deplete the scarce resources. I chose to interpret it as a symbol of her vitality.  A power that she has to destroy in order to comply with  the ritual of being carried to the mountain and die.

Another aspect of the link between The Ballad of Narayama and my experience of old age is the generation gap. In the film this is explicit. The very young tease and torment the old woman. The adults ignore her and more than that wish her dead. And yet her relationship with her son is one of affection and care.   The relationship with the daughter-in-law is also warm and one where Orin passes on her knowledge. This reflects so well my experience of old women  with  rich relationships with their close young relatives, friends or fellow activists. But these relationships are invisible in the general consciousness.

I have written about my experiences of ageism on 12th April 2011 on this blog : Warm Heart and Rusty Body? and in  September 2011 on the more personal blog  Call to old women to be militant.   In my post   November 2009 on this blog I noted the ‘otherness’ of the old woman while watching films about older women.  AGEWISE, Gullette’s book  changed my own consciousness  and I feel now that the Kinoshita’s version of the Ballad of Narayama can well be studied as relevant today.

NOTE: As reported in the Guardian 22nd. January 2013  Taro Aso, Japan  finance minister:

“Heaven forbid if you are forced to live on when you want to die. I would wake up feeling increasingly bad knowing that [treatment] was all being paid for by the government.  The problem won’t be solved unless you let them hurry up and die.”

About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
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