Arrow Academy: Survivor Ballads: Three Films by Shōhei Imamura



 The Ballad of Narayama (1983)

Growing old is a frightening prospect for many people. The mind ages slower than the body and it must be harrowing to experience the decline of one's physical form. Japan currently ranks number one in the world for having the highest percentage of elderly population, and through its films has occasionally explored the relationship between the young and the old. This theme is front-and-center in Imamura's take on The Ballad of Narayama, an adaptation of the 1956 novel  Narayama bushikō by Shichirō Fukazawa. Additionally, in 1958 there was a version directed by Keisuka Kinoshita which took a decidedly different kubuki theater style approach. Imamura's take on the material is the polar opposite of the original version—where that one embraces artifice and staging, his vision is humanistic and organic.

The film takes place in 19th century Japan in a small isolated village. Life is hard as the villagers are poor and every winter is a harsh survival-of-the-fittest situation. In order to control the population and ensure there is enough food and resources to go around, the ritual of oyasute or "abandoning a parent" is performed. In this practice, once a family member reaches the age of 70 they are taken to the top of a mountain and left to die there from exposure. The narrative follows the Neko family and their matriarch Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto) who is quickly approaching the age of abandonment. Orin is resigned to her fate but in her last year she tries desperately to make sure her household affairs are in order.



Life in the village is harsh and their customs are build around endurance over compassion. It's apparent that families care for one another, but there are incidents that showcase the brutality that is needed for continuance. Imamura reinforces this theme by periodically inserting shots of animals in their natural habitat engaging in mating or devouring one another for sustenance. When it comes down to it, humanity is also a slave to base urges to fuck and to eat and it is only when these needs are met that other pursuits are available. The Ballad of Narayama doesn't shy away from earthy human behaviors such as sex and even at times defecating--these are part of our natural makeup. This gives the film a grimy and at times joyous feel that is equally compelling and shocking.
Women in this film are depicted as the leaders of their households but also ironically used as a commodity and forced to do unsavory things to maintain face and order. One woman is told by her dying husband that to atone for his sins in life she has to sleep with every man in the village after he dies. This is played for laughs mostly, but it also encapsulates how little agency the women have in this society. Orin herself succumbs to public opinion and smashes out her teeth because she is ridiculed for being in good health at her age. Yet, in a different scene she holds enough power to condemn her eldest son's wife to death. The contradiction between the two views towards women in the film is intriguing.

Touches of black humor keep the tone of the film from feeling too grim, and it's apparent Imamura has a lot of love for these characters. The third act in particular, which chronicles Orin's journey to the top of the mountain is incredibly poignant. Mother and son trek in a complete silence that is only broken by ambient nature sounds, and the grief is palpable. Letting go of a loved one is excruciating, especially if you are the one transporting them to their resting place.

 Zegen (1987)

The Japanese word zegan is translated as "someone who sells women into prostitution" aka a pimp. Imamura's film of the same name focuses on the adventures of Iheiji Muraoka (Ken Ogata), a man who fell into this line of business quite by accident, and who subsequently became rich from his endeavors. Zegen starts in the Meiji era and mostly takes place as Japan is ramping up their colonial tendencies as they invade various surrounding Asian countries. Muraoka himself is a micro version of this, as he leaves Japan as a young man to seek his fortune in Hong Kong, a one-man representation of Japanese encroachment on other cultures.

Muraoka's commodity of choice is peddling female flesh, and the film goes to great lengths to paint him as not completely evil, yet ultimately, the fact that he is participating in human trafficking is vile. Sex work in a vacuum isn't bad, but in this particular time period the context surrounding it makes it less than fruitful for the women participating in it. Women sold their bodies because they had no choice--it was one of the only ways to make any sort of money. It was either do this or starve to death on the streets. Imamura gives the women in Zegen a vitality and carefree attitude that becomes eroded over the years, until they are left haggard and penniless dying from sexually transmitted diseases. These women gave the best years of their lives to a society that craved their services but condemned them for providing it.



One of the more interesting aspects of Zegen is that it is loosely based on a supposedly true autobiography. This autobiography, published in the '60s and reprinted in the '80s by Imamura himself, has come under scrutiny and some of the events believed to be fabricated. Thematically, this parallels the narrative of the film as Muraoka's character is patriotic to the point of being a fanatic, but towards the end his jingoism is shattered by the aggressive actions of his own beloved country. Just as the real life figure of Muraoka is a sham so is the real life version of the imperialism his country was founded on. Both are idealized fantasies.

Like most of Imamura's films, there is a thread of sardonic humor running through Zegen. It's more of a bawdy sex romp than a straight forward historical document and this tonal inconsistency hampers the film a little bit. The pacing feels fast as well and the first act of the film jumps around swaths of Murakoa's life which can get confusing. It finds its footing in the middle and after that it is much easier to become immersed in the story. While it is not one of Imamura's strongest works it is still incredibly interesting and is carried by Ogata's strong lead performance.

Black Rain (1989)

While there were a number of people who died immediately in the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, either from the blast itself, or injuries sustained from the explosion, there were a great amount of people who died afterwards from complications of radiation poisoning. Information on what radiation sickness was and the long term effects on an individual's health were unknown, and so many people suffered in silence from a variety of ailments. These poor victims were known as hibakusha which loosely translated from Japanese means, "person affected by nuclear exposure". These hibakusha were subjected to discrimination from their fellow Japanese due to their frail constitution and fear that their condition was contagious and/or hereditary.

In Black Rain (1989) we follow the tribulations of three hibakusha who survived the bombing of Hiroshima, but unfortunately were exposed to large amounts of radiation while making their way through the devastated city. Yasko (Yoshiko Tanaka) is a young woman who was caught out in the "black rain" which is rain saturated with the fallout from the blast. Her aunt and uncle (who were also exposed) take her under their care and the main narrative of the film is about their efforts to arrange a marriage for Yasko. Due to her status as a hibakusha, parents are unwilling to consider her proposals.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Black Rain is director Shōhei Imamura's decision to film the movie in black and white. If one didn't know that it was filmed in the late '80s one could mistake it as a film from the '50s. The effect is has is twofold: it makes the film feel more like a period piece and it also reinforces the theme of a life drained of all joy and color. The entire film is somber and understated as we watch Yasko's life ticking away due to events that were not under her control.

The narrative is split between present day (1950) and flashbacks to five years earlier when the bomb was dropped. Yasko's uncle decides to make a copy of her diary in a desperate attempt to clear her medical status in order to convince a suitor's family, and as he reads her diary the film periodically flashes back to the day of the blast. These flashbacks are incredibly horrific with scenes of gruesomely burnt and injured people and the general mayhem and destruction of the city. It is tragic that even though they survived this terrible situation, they still bear the scars and stigma of the war even years after the event.

Yasko finds herself drawn to a young man who was a soldier during the war and who suffers from extreme PTSD. Any time he hears the roar of a car engine he freaks out thinking he is being attacked by tanks. When he is not having an episode he is a quiet and sensitive artist and Yakso finds solace in their shared trauma. 

As the film progresses Yasko's health worsens and her symptoms become more pronounced: she tires easily and her hair starts to fall out. The film ends on a note of uncertainty as Yasko falls gravely ill and is whisked away in an ambulance--her final fate unknown. Imamura shot a twenty minute alternate ending in full color that does show what happens to Yasko, but at the last minute decided not to use it. While it is satisfying to see her fate, I think the film works much better with the ambiguous ending as it makes the audience empathize with the feeling of helplessness that the characters have to endure.

Black Rain is a touching tribute to the plight of the long suffering hibakusha, a group of people who did not receive compensation or pity from their own country until a decade after the war.





  • Restored High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations of all three films
  • Original lossless Japanese PCM 1.0 mono soundtracks
  • Optional English subtitles
  • Brand new audio commentaries on all three films by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp
  • Brand new, in-depth appreciations of all three films by Japanese cinema expert Tony Rayns
  • Alternate colour ending to Black Rain, shot by Imamura but removed from the film shortly before its release
  • Archival interviews on Black Rain with actress Yoshiko Tanaka and assistant director Takashi Miike
  • Multiple trailers and image galleries
  • Original Japanese press kits for The Ballad of Narayama and Black Rain (BD-ROM content)
  • Limited edition 60-page booklet containing new writing by Tom Mes
  • Limited edition packaging featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tony Stella

--Michelle Kisner