The Ballad of Narayama

Dolores Brien reflects on the lessons of Shohei Imamura’s 1982 film, The Ballad of Narayama. Only by recognizing what dying is really like can we rid ourselves of the fear of dying and prepare ourselves for what Sherwin Nuland says is the best we can hope for: our particular death.

The Ballad of Narayama
Commentary by Dolores E. Brien

Dr. Kervorkian, aka “Dr Death” was recently convicted for murder having given a lethal injection to a patient suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease. He did so at the request of the patient and of his family. He also made a video of it, portions of which were shown on a segment of “60 Minutes.” He had done so, he said, to bring about his arrest in order to dramatize his case for legalizing euthenasia. All we were told about this man was that he was fond of racing cars, that he was terrified of choking to death, and that his suffering had become so intolerable that he no longer wished to go on living. There were brief comments from his wife, brother and mother who said they just didn’t know what else they could do.

This event put me in mind of Shohei Imamura’s 1982 film, The Ballad of Narayama. I saw it years ago and happened to see it again on video shortly after the Kevorkian event. The story takes place in the late nineteenth century in a village in a remote mountainous area of northern Japan. The villagers rice crop is meager and starvation is a chronic threat. With too many mouths to feed with too little food available, it has become incumbent upon the elderly, by the time they have reached their 70th year, to go, on the backs of their sons, to the summit of Mount Narayama and there to be left to die.

Orin, who is now in her seventieth year, lives in the village with her three sons. The oldest is Tatushei, a widower. One son has taken a wife who is now pregnant with Orin’s grandchild. The matriarch of the family, she watches over the food supply and prepares the meals. She arranges a marriage for her oldest son with a newly widowed woman from a neighboring village. As trust and affection grow between them, she reveals to her daughter-in-law where trout can be found and how to catch them. This had been her well-guarded secret because food is always scarce in this poor, mountainous village.

Orin’s authority which emanates from her fidelity to the gods and to tradition, extends also to the village. When another family is caught stealing precious rice from their neighbors, she sees to it that the members are killed, in fact, buried alive, for their crime. She is no sweet, little old lady.

Now that her eldest son has a good woman to work by his side, Orin knows that her time has come to go to the summit of Narayama. A grandchild will soon be born, another mouth to feed. She desires to be faithful to the rule of the gods which demands that she not be alive to see her grandchild. She never questions her fate but accepts it serenely. However hard life is, there is an order and purpose to it. It is Tatsuhei who is in anguish at the thought of his mother’s death. Frantically, he begs her repeatedly to postpone her decision, but she will not listen. Instead, she is eager to go in time for the first snow fall on Narayama, because that will be a sign that her death has been blessed by the gods. She calls in the elders of the village to perform the necessary ritual before she and Tatsuhei undertake the journey. They remind Tatsuhei with Orin that no one may witness their departure. More cruelly still, no words are to be exchanged between mother and son during the journey. Once they pass through the gate to the summit, they may no longer change their mind and turn back.

Not everyone is as surrendered to their fate as is Orin. A terrified old man whose son is desperate to get rid of his father by taking him to Narayama, tries again and again to escape. Orin protects him from his son’s wrath, but at the same time scolds him for being unwilling to accept what the gods now ask of him.

Finally, the day arrives and Tatsuhei and Orin climb Narayama. Tatsuhei is nearly crazy with grief, but Orin is implacable, motioning him to go on, go on. As they reach the summit, all around them are the bones of the dead guarded by ravens. At Orin’s signal Tatsuhei lowers her to the ground where she sits on a thin blanket. They embrace; she waves Tatsuhei away, closes her eyes and waits calmly for death to take her. Tatsuhei blinded by tears begins to descend. As he does, snow begins to fall. The gods have blessed Orin for having fulfilled their law.

During the descent Tatsuhei comes across the old man and the son who was determined to bring his father to Narayama and to his death. As the wailing father struggles for his life, the son casts him over a cliff. Enraged by what he has witnessed, Tatsuhei wrestles with the son who also falls to his death. The film ends with Tatsuhei and his wife looking towards Narayama and acknowledging that one day, when they reach their seventieth year, they too will climb that mountain to their death.

What many who saw this film found appalling was the harshness of life governed by such draconian laws. Even more disturbing to us who live in a society which glorifies individualism, is the idea that it is not the individual, but the family and the community which matters and which must be served. Orin understand this perfectly and lives accordingly, without doubt or fear. Her son Tatsuhei, on the other hand, torn by his love for his mother and by his need for her, resists as best he can. The villager who drags his reluctant father to Narayama finds the law convenient for his purposes but his deed goes against its spirit. For it is the old parent who must take the initiative and go bravely, however reluctantly, to his or her death.

I had occasion in the years following to remember this haunting film and Orin most vividly of all. She reminded me of my father who—I realized only later—had in the year or so before his death, been preparing himself for it. One day I received a call from him in which he apologized for some misunderstanding we had had several years before. I had forgotten the incident because our relationship afterwards did not seem to be seriously affected by it. I was very moved, but puzzled by this belated gesture on his part. I had also noticed that he had become more loving and appreciative of my mother, trying to make up for the bitter times of discord between them. My father had a very private spiritual life which was nurtured by his Catholic faith and which, I have no doubt, was a consolation to him as he consciously readied himself for death. He died alone in a hospital room, with none of his family around him.

There is a good deal of talk today about “dying with dignity.” Sherwin Nuland who in his book How We Die, says that dying with dignity is not given to most of us. It is a self-deceiving myth, an illusion fed by our fear of death as the terrible unknown. Only by recognizing what dying is really like, can we rid ourselves of the fear of dying and prepare ourselves for what he says is the best we can hope for: our particular death. He quotes Rilke: “Oh Lord, give each of us his own death.” Orin’s death was prescribed by the laws of the gods and by the traditions of her people, which also gave her particular death meaning. My father’s way of dying was private and personal. But guided as it was by the teaching and tradition of the Church, I believe it also had meaning for him. He knew his death was coming and he was ready for it.

Orin, on the contrary, although bent nearly double with hard labor as much as from age, was still able to serve her family. My father was ill, but he was not in pain. Which brings me back to Jack Kevorkian and the planned death of the man suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Here was a man who chose to die because he could no longer bear his sufferings. The decision was his alone and was not sanctioned or supported by the religious or civil institutions of our society. What support he got came only from his immediate family and from Dr. Kevorkian. We know nothing of his religious convictions or lack of them. Because we do not know the intensity of his suffering which drove him to this ultimate decision, I believe we cannot judge it as being an “immoral” one. Whether the decision, however, had meaning for him other than the release from his suffering we also do not know.

When Orin and her son set out for Narayama they were instructed to do so without anyone seeing them. My father died quietly and alone in his hosptial bed. The death of the man with Lou Gehrig’s disease however, was witnessed by millions. I do not think most viewers were shocked or appalled by what they saw. First of all, we knew what to expect from this event and chose, any way, to look in on it. But as the British writer Angela Carter observed, TV has “a built-in alienation effect.” However momentarily it aroused some emotion in us, the experience did not and could not bring “real” life to us, but only a simulacrum. We were not really present, although we may have fooled ourselves sentimentally into believing such was the case. The entire event left us secure from the terrible immediacy of the event. We were not present to comfort the man, nor even to judge him. We came, after the fact, as voyeurs.

One difference between witnessing a death on TV and The Ballad of Narayama was that the fate of Orin took place as a story, in the context of a narrative which was revealed to have meaning on its own terms. I, as a Westerner, am also uncomfortable with the idea of the sacrifice of the individual for the good of the community, although it does occur even in the West—soldiers in wartime, for example, are asked to sacrifice their lives. The resistance of Tatsuhei to his mother’s inevitable death is a familiar and understandable experience. The son’s wilful killing of the old man who did not want to die is an image that may very well lurk in our fears of how a Kevorkian style death might be used. The film enthralls, however, because the preparation of Orin for her death represents a kind of order which, at heart, we all long for, that sense of our having a time and a place in this world which we trust has a meaning although what that meaning is may remain hidden from us. Orin went to her death for a very practical reason because there would be one less mouth to feed. She had had her time and it was up and so she went willingly. It was meaning enough for her and she went in tranquillity asking only that the gods bless her for having been faithful to them. When death occurs among those I know, or when I think of my own death, the haunting image of Orin returns to evoke the unwanted thought: How do I want to die?

© Dolores E. Brien 1999

E-mail: Dolores Brien.