This second film adaptation of Shichirō Fukazawa's novella The Ballad of Narayama takes the "life is cheap" theme of Bunuel's Los Olvidados and, somehow, doubles down on it with an even darker look at desperate people who will do whatever it takes to stay alive.
In a remote valley below the mountain Narayama, the hard scrabble villagers reserve no sentimentality for life, pursuing their daily needs very much like the animals in the surrounding wilderness. Food is scarce, to be hoarded or stolen; industriousness is prized with no room for folly; and if a willing woman can't be acquired, sex with the neighbor's dog is not out of the question. Dead babies are discarded by the stream, live babies might fetch a good price; either way, it's thankfully one less mouth to feed. Justice is handled by the pitiless mob. The only subject afforded any romanticization is the death of the old, particularly through the arduous ritual of carrying the elderly up the mountain, where they are left to die.
Directed by Shôhei Imamura, The Ballad of Narayama is confrontationally distant. Unlike Bunuel, who delights in the sleight of hand of building and then withdrawing empathy, Imamura depicts shockingly amoral negotiations of raw urges with no detectable comment, adhering to naturalism in both his storytelling and visuals, with just a hint of poetic embellishment. It's a fascinating rumination on the often intolerable burdens of family and life and the value of convoluted superstition in sustaining another generation of struggle.
I've had the 1958 version of The Ballad of Narayama on my watchlist for some time; now, I'm even more curious to see how another director, in the much more tame period 25 years earlier, dealt with this same powerful material.