“When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer,” Stevie Wonder sang in 1972. Superstitions are something you need to consider when you’re watching  Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1958 “The Ballad of Narayama” 楢山節考.

The movie “The Ballad of Narayama” 楢山節考  is based on a book by the same name by Shichiro Fukazawa 深沢 七郎.  Fukazawa’s first novel was about an old legend of obasute-yama (also ubasute 姥捨て), a mountain where Japanese peasants would leave their parents to die. The characters and the words indicate that this mostly applied to women. A more general term, oyasute 親捨て,  is also sometimes used.

An Ubasute-yama does exist in Nagano prefecture, but the official name of the mountain is Kamuriki-yama, the mountain that wears a crown. There is also an Obasute station on the East Japan Railway Company line. In the movie, Orin (Kinuyo Tanaka) is 69 years old and in good health. Her widower son Tatsuhei (Teiji Takahashi) dreads the thought of obasute. Orin is portrayed as looking forward to her journey to the mountain because this is the way of the gods. In contrast, an elderly man, Mata-yan (Seiji Miyaguchi)  refuses to make the journey and having been cast out by his son (Yunosuke Ito), begs for food.

When I first heard the title, “The Ballad of Narayama,” I thought of Nara 奈良市, the capital of Japan from 710 to 784, and wondered if this was about a mountain there. When I saw the characters, I immediately understood it wasn’t that Nara–the Nara of the Daibutsu, roaming roguish deer, Buddhism and the old capital of Japan. In Nara prefecture 奈良市(ならし), the old capital, there is a Narayama  平城山駅(ならやまえき)and this place doesn’t use the same characters as the Narayama of the movie, either.

The Nara in the title, “The Ballad of Narayama” 『楢山節考』(ならやまぶしこう) means oak. There are actually three Chinese characters, kanji, that can be used to refer to what has been botanically identified as an oak tree: 、橿、櫧. Two are pronounced “kashi” and not “nara.” This makes one wonder why the author chose nara instead of kashi. There is indeed a Kashiyama. Kashi might make one think of Kashiwa sweets, but Nara might bring up the imagery of Buddhism. (The bushiko uses the characters for season and old).

While the Japanese admire the flexibility of the bamboo, oak trees are also seen as lucky because they have a long life and thus symbolize longevity. In Fukazawa’s novel, the oak tree mountain thus sets up an irony that those lucky enough to live a long life, up to 70 years of age, must go to this place where the elderly are taken to die.

In Japanese, the number seven already sets up a feeling of dread. Seven is one of those unlucky numbers. The number seven is usually read shichi, but the Japanese rarely use shichi to refer to people and instead substitute nana. Shichi is a homophone for the 死地 “jaws of death” or a “fatal position.” Shi means death. Chi is for earth. Sometimes juu means during such as in the phrase ichinichijuu (一日中)means all day long or during one day’s time. Certainly that makes 70, shichijuu,  the perfect age for this tale about obasute.

According to Mock Joya’s “Things Japanese,” while the story of obasute is widespread and with many local variations, the “story may give a false impression that the ancient Japanese actually carried out such an inhumane practice.”  Joya finds “The story was started with the idea of teaching children the duty of being kind and considerate to their old parents.” Perhaps this is how we should interpret this movie. By using the stylized theatrical staging and Kabuki and Noh conventions such as the narrator, Kinoshita places us in the realm of myths and legends–not unlike the Noh play, Takasago, the tale of an elderly couple who die and become two entwined pine trees.

Back in this time of legends and myths, people were really superstitious. They believe in things to help them explain things they didn’t understand. And just consider how superstitious people are even now. In the U.S., you rarely find a building with a 13th floor or a room number 13. In Japan, while there are 13th floors and 4th and 7th floors, there are other superstitions. I knew a teacher who would clap her hands twice, even while driving if we passed by a shrine. There are people who still consult with diviners when choosing the name of a child.

As “Shakespeare Uncovered: Hamlet with David Tennant” noted, we need to remember that during a certain time period ghosts and ghouls were considered real. Fukazawa was writing about a time period when oni were real occurrences to the villagers. In the movie, Orin’s eldest grandson, Kesakichi (Danko Ichikawa), taunts the old woman, suggesting that she is a devil because she has a full set of teeth. A woman at 69 with a full set of beautiful teeth would be unusual. People have 32 teeth, but an oni would have more than the usual number of things, like 33 teeth. Is it a coincidence that the kichi in Kesakichi’s name–an unusual Japanese name–could suggest the homophone for wit 機知or even danger 危地.  According to Wikipedia (where I reference for all the names), the character used for Kesakichi けさ吉 is the kichi for good luck or joy. Kesa could mean this morning, but is written in hiragana. The danger that Kesakichi brings is the suggestion of Orin being an oni.

The danger is also in Orin’s name which among other things could  be “rin” 林 for forest or “rin” 燐 for an elf’s fire or onibi 鬼火。Her name is written in hiragana and not kanji.

According to Joya, oni began as something hidden or invisible that could harm or kill humans, but with Buddhism oni came to represent hideous monsters. Dead people could become oni and cause sickness and suffering.

Other customs include Setsubun 節分are still practiced with varied levels of belief. On the eve of Setsubun, one throw beans and declare, “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi” (鬼は外福はうち)or “Oni out and happiness inside.” Oddly enough, Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan notes there are Japanese families supposedly descended from oni.

In the movie, the villagers live in poverty and a persistent fear of starvation. The movie opens with a messager who brings news of death to Orin. A man in the neighboring town where Orin was born has just been buried three days ago. The widow is 45 years old just as is Orin’s son Tatsuhei and will come in after 49-days of mourning.

Orin takes the news to Tatsuhei who has just paid his respects to the grave of his wife who died a year before, falling down a ravine. Tatsuhei has just warned one of his younger sons to be careful where he plays or he too might die from such a fall. Death is all around. Orin and Tatsuhei consider the upcoming O-bon festival, a time when the dead supposedly come back to earth and visit their hometowns.

The widow who comes as the future bride for Orin’s widower son arrives alone and when Orin sets out a feast, she gobbles down the white rice–something made for special occasions and three fish. Her name Tama-yan means jade and the son’s name, Tatsuhei (辰平) are two lucky symbols, dragon and balance. The couple seems to be meant for each other. With her son taken care of, Orin is ready to accept the way of the kami because the practice of obasute is part of the villagers’ way to appease the kami or gods of the mountains.

Notice that when Tatsuhei and Orin go before the village counsel. Each of the elders drinks from a large vessel. I think they are drinking water for purification. With the Orin and Tatsuhei, there is a total of eight people in the room. Tatsuhei and Orin are seated together on one side. Six other people are seated in a line on the other side. Without the two who do not speak during the official instructions, the number of elders would be an unlucky four. With only one of the two non-speakers, the total number of the people in the room would be an unlucky seven.

Tatsuhei takes the journey, carrying his mother on his back, unwilling to leave his mother halfway there. The scene of a mountain without oak trees but littered with skulls and bones suggests a time before Buddhism, before cremation and prayers in front of gravestones. The cold which could be a curse to the poor is now a blessing. Is the lack of trees an ironic visual statement. Are the people who die there then the oak trees?

Orin’s selfless sacrifice is due to her belief that it will please the kami and that it will insure the survival of her son and his family. That kind of belief brings comfort into a world that is unpredictable where something as capricious at the weather can mean starvation and death.

Very superstitious, writings on the wall,

Very superstitious, ladders bout’ to fall,

Thirteen month old baby, broke the lookin’ glass

Seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past

When you believe in things that you don’t understand,

Then you suffer,

Superstition ain’t the way

Very superstitious, wash your face and hands,

Rid me of the problem, do all that you can,

Keep me in a daydream, keep me goin’ strong,

You don’t wanna save me, sad is my song

When you believe in things that you don’t understand,

Then you suffer,

Superstition ain’t the way, yeh, yeh

Very superstitious, nothin’ more to say,

Very superstitious, the devil’s on his way,

Thirteen month old baby, broke the lookin’ glass,

Seven years of bad luck, good things in your past

When you believe in things that you don’t understand,

Then you suffer,

Superstition ain’t the way, no, no, no 

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