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Review: Black River and The Ballad of Narayama

Black River

One of Masaki Kobayashi’s many scathing statements on the sad state of Japan following the American military’s occupation, Black River is a postwar yakuza masterpiece that is absolutely on par with Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, and Ikiru. Set amidst ramshackle tenements and seedy nightclubs not unlike those navigated by Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura in the aforementioned films, Black River tells the tale of a young student’s struggles against his corrupt landlady, whose rent policies are as crooked as her mouthful of jagged teeth.

At least that’s what the official description on Hulu claims. In truth, it’s insultingly reductive to claim that the film is “about” any one thing. True, the destitute tenants spend some of their time attempting to fight injustice, but Kobayashi is much more interested in the fabric of their everyday lives and how they interact, from the local communist desperately imploring his neighbors to work together to fairly divide the steep utilities expenses, to the ceaseless bickering of the unemployed loser and his alcoholic wife, who he is unaware (or, perhaps, just willfully ignorant) is prostituting herself behind his back.

In fact, the student is easily the least interesting of the bunch, vanishing from view for long stretches and surrendering the role of viewpoint character to his designated love interest, a charming waitress who tragically has her virginity (and her white parasol, an obvious symbol of her innocence that, while unsubtle, is chillingly effective) stolen by a local yakuza thug, Joe the Killer (played with gusto by the always chameleonic Tatsuya Nakadai). Too ashamed to face the man she truly loves and fearful of Joe’s wrath should she report him to the police, she passively becomes the gangster’s trophy lover–perhaps hoping, like the heroine in Kobayashi’s later Samurai Rebellion, that her “love” will prevent him from harming any other women. When she finally discovers the true depths of his depravity, however, she becomes determined to put an end to his reign of terror–by any means necessary.

It is a dark resolution to the conflict, to be sure, but also inevitable; as he later would in The Inheritance, Kobayashi sets his story in a bleak world, and if the characters inhabiting it hope to survive, they must allow themselves to become tarnished.

The Ballad of Narayama

Before he built a career as a rebellious auteur in his own right, Masaki Kobayashi apprenticed under Keisuke Kinoshita, who, along with Yasujiro Ozu, was one of Shochiku’s greatest and most prolific commercial artists. I’ve seen it suggested that Kobayashi only became a great director after he escaped his mentor’s shadow and rejected the studio’s preference for lighthearted and lyrical domestic dramas, but certain works in Kinoshita’s vast and varied filmography suggest he imparted more to his longtime collaborator than mere craft.

One such film is The Ballad of Narayama, which, like Kobayashi’s best period work (Harakiri, Samurai Rebellion), questions the nature of honor in an inherently corrupt and unjust system. The story unfolds in a remote village where food and resources are scarce, and where tradition therefore dictates that every inhabitant older than seventy must be borne to the top of the mountain on the back of his or her eldest son and abandoned to die, thus symbolically freeing their family from the burden of supporting them. Orin, the elderly protagonist, is so enthusiastic about her journey into the next life that she destroys her perfectly healthy teeth, lest she appear insufficiently aged to the mountain gods. At one point, she even fearfully observes that she might not be able to depart before the birth of her first great-grandchild, which would invite the jeers of her casually cruel fellow villagers.

Her serene resignation to her fate is juxtaposed with the attitude of her neighbor and childhood friend, a man so anxious to cling to life that he chews through the ropes binding him to his thuggish son’s back as they trudge up the mountain trail. Despite their numerous differences, both are victims of a heartless and brutal system of oppression, and Orin’s devoted son finds himself questioning the morality of an outdated and shortsighted custom that arbitrarily condemns useful and able bodied individuals like his mother and her “cowardly” counterpart (who eagerly joins the pursuit of a rice thief, despite being injured and malnourished) to perish alone, victims of exposure and starvation, while unproductive layabouts like his own oldest child continue to take up space. Despite his reservations, he fails–repeatedly–to dissuade Orin from embracing her doom, though he does manage to, in his own small way, defiantly strike back against the injustice that has caused him so much grief.

Here again, we see Kinoshita’s kinship with Kobayashi, whose jidai-geki heroes found purpose and pleasure in lashing out even though their actions ultimately accomplished nothing: amidst tragedy heartbreak, even a sliver of fleeting satisfaction makes all the difference.

[Originally written August 1, 2015.]

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