Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Long, Strange Trips

Films: Easy Rider, Narayama-Bushi ko(The Ballad of Narayama)
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library (Easy Rider), DVD from Rockford Public Library (Narayama) on itty bitty bedroom television.

There is perhaps no more common theme in stories than that of a journey. Journey stories are central to the human experience, often with the protagonist(s) eventually coming full circle and winding up back where they started. Stories like, for instance, The Lord of the Rings is a journey on the grandest of scales, while others are far less sweeping. Still, it’s a well-known and loved trope. Our hero sets off from home, goes somewhere to accomplish something, and returns. In fact, this idea is so prevalent that fantasy films like LotR, science-fiction films (Silent Running, much of Luke Skywalker’s actions in The Empire Strikes Back), and romance films (An Affair to Remember, Titanic) use aspects of it. Bing and Bob made a cinematic career of going on the road.

Easy Rider is less a journey than it is a trip. There’s no great quest here for our two heroes Wyatt “Captain America” (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper), nor their eventual companion George Hanson (Jack Nicholson). All they want to do is get to Mardi Gras before it’s over. It’s a long trip from Los Angeles to New Orleans on motorcycles, and the drive takes them through some places that are far more dangerous than they look.

The film starts with our two main characters transporting a large amount of cocaine across the Mexican border. They sell the stash to a man called only “The Connection” (played by Phil Spector before he started giving himself a daily enema with a Tesla coil). The money from the score is inserted into a long plastic tube which is then inserted into the teardrop gas tank of Captain America’s highly modified chopper. From there, the two set off for Louisiana.

Along the way, they encounter several people. They meet a rancher trying to make a go of things on his own with his wife and large passel of children. They also pick up a hitchhiker (Luke Askew), who directs them to his commune, offers them free love in the form of the women of the commune, introduces them to his group’s idea of living off the land in peace, and plants a few tabs of blotter acid on them, instructing Captain America to drop it with the right people.

They encounter George Hanson when they are thrown into prison for illegally entering the tail end of a parade, but the reality is that they’re incarcerated mostly because of their appearance. Captain America is ruggedly handsome, but sports some massive sideburns as well as an American flag-stitched jacket while Billy is a longhair and wears buckskins and a huge mustache. George, the local lawyer and town drunk, gets them out and decides to go with them on their trip. They introduce him to marijuana (and evidently were really smoking it on set).

The trip eventually goes south both literally and figuratively. They keep encountering people who don’t like their kind, seeing them as little more than animals on the road at best, or as things not even worth scorning with a boot at worst. This culminates twice—once at a campground and once on the road—in the only way it possibly can.

The acid trip in the cemetery in New Orleans is perhaps the greatest moment of the film. It is decidedly surreal and disjointed, and this is intentional. It is supposed to come as close to representing a real acid trip as was possible at the time. Accidentally overexposed film was used in this to good effect, the absolute essence of making the best of a bad situation. This scene is troubling and also touching, particularly as Wyatt hugs a statue and talks to it as if it were his mother.

The line of the movie comes in the final campfire. Billy is excited. They have money, they’re where they want to be, and for him, the dream of Mardi Gras is fulfilled at last. Wyatt looks at him and says, “We blew it.” He’s right. The dream they had, the one that they really came for, didn’t exist. All they found was a few hookers (one played by Toni Basil), a place to drop acid, and people who treat them as something less than second-class citizens. Earlier, George’s comment is dead on. He tells them that people dislike them because they represent freedom. Everybody loves freedom, he says, but they hate it in other people when they don’t really have it themselves.

What is noteworthy about this film is that the world hasn’t changed. Forty years or more after the creation of Easy Rider, there is a huge part of the American population that treats anyone different from them exactly as Captain America, George, and Billy are treated throughout this movie. We have not evolved, or at least a significant percentage of our population hasn’t. It is sad to think that in essentially my lifetime, so many of us have simply marched in place, ethically speaking.

Narayama-Bushi ko (The Ballad of Narayama) tells of a different sort of journey. While there certainly is a real voyage at the end of this film, most of the journey here is a metaphorical one. In the town this film takes place in, people live only to 70 years old. Life is difficult, and so as to not be a burden, at 70, people make a pilgrimage to Narayama, the local mountain. Here they are left to die, not unlike the traditional story about Aleuts putting Grandma on the ice floe and casting her adrift.

Orin (Sumiko Sakamoto) is 69 years old and is preparing herself for the journey to Narayama. She is ready to go, and even wants to go so as not to be a burden to her family. However, it also appears that she is the only one who can take care of anything in their household. The rest are concerned with their own minor pleasures and their sex lives while Orin seems to handle the day-to-day work of keeping the house running. We discover that her husband ran off years ago, in part because of the necessity of taking his own mother on the pilgrimage to Narayama.

Orin has two sons. Tatsuhei (Ken Ogata) is the elder. His wife died in childbirth, and while he’s not that interested in marriage any more, he is promised a new bride from a nearby village. Life is so difficult in this part of Japan that only first sons are allowed to marry. Second (and beyond) sons are called yakko, essentially not only banning them from marriage, but from sex entirely. Tatsuhei’s brother is Risuke (Tonpei Hidari). Risuke is commonly called “Stinker” because evidently he smells to the point that no one can bear to be near him.

The film details Orin’s last year, and doesn’t shirk with the brutality of existence in this part of the world. Male children are frequently left to die of exposure when the family can’t afford to feed them. Daughters are more desirable because they can typically be sold off, getting rid of a mouth to feed as well as bringing in needed money. The harvest goes poorly this year, and a family is discovered hoarding food. This is stolen from them, and then the family is rounded up, taken out into the wilderness, and buried alive to get rid of the problems they cause.

Orin continually makes difficult choices throughout, choices that many Western viewers will have difficulty reconciling. She sends her prospective granddaughter-in-law to the family about to be killed, for instance, so that she will be taken with them and eliminated. This removes the problem of her pregnancy and an additional child around the house. At one point, deciding that she needs to make sure that she is carried up to Narayama when her time comes, she intentionally knocks out several of her teeth to help feign physical weakness and degradation.

While there are moments of comedy, most of this is of the blackest sort, and laughs come not specifically because of the humor, but to ward off cringes. The central ideas of this film are the twin thoughts of Orin’s remarkable strength in her life and her desire to do what is right for her family, and the bleak existence these people live. When food is such a scarce resource, luxuries like emotion have no place. Deaths are celebrated because they mean less strain on the limited resources. Even Orin’s grandson Kesakichi (Seiji Kurasaka) mourns for his lost girlfriend and unborn child for an evening before finding another woman for himself.

The film takes a much more grim turn toward the end when Tatsuhei places Orin on his back and begins their trip to Narayama which only he will return from. Before they go, Tatsuhei is told that it isn’t really necessary to carry her all the way to the top of the mountain. There is a place he can leave her instead, and no one will really know. Their arrival to this place is one of the most terrible and moving things I have seen in a film, and it is a moment that will stay with me for a very long time.

I can’t say I enjoyed this film. It’s horribly depressing and unrelenting. It is, however, brilliant. I don’t want to watch it again, but I feel that watching it was certainly worth the time.

Why to watch Easy Rider: Counter-culture, music, and truth.
Why not to watch: Reality sometimes sucks.

Why to watch Narayama-Bushi ko: Orin’s admirable strength.
Why not to watch: Sometimes reality sucks even more.


  1. Oh, the Ballad of Narayama. Oh, that heartbreaking finale. Oh man... Nice write-ups!! I never would have thought to pair up these films, but yes, they do share a common theme.

  2. That's a soulcrusher, isn't it? If I'd watched it first, I don't think I'd have made it through Easy Rider on the same day.

  3. I didn't realize The Ballad of Narayama was on the List, but I saw it on the TCM schedule and DVRed it and watched it a few days ago. I love Japanese cinema so much! And I can always count on TCM's programming when it comes to Japanese movies.

    Narayama was no exception. I was really into it, despite the intense subject matter. A unique film. I don't think there's anything else like it. Combine the use of the Japanese ballad with the subject of abandoning the elderly, and you get a great one-of-a-kind film.

    Toward the end, I didn't think there was anything that would surprise me, but the guy that threw his own father off the cliff, that scene left me wide-eyed and gasping a bit. When he followed his father to the same doom shortly after, that seemed like well-deserved karma.

    I don't think I know anyone I'd recommend this to. The film fans I know who like Japanese movies and wouldn't be too disturbed by the depressing subject matter would probably balk at the lengthy sections where the ballad is being sung.

    1. Narayama is a tough watch, one of those films I think I'm happy to have seen but just as happy to not have to see again. I agree with you on the recommendation problem. Not sure who I could suggest watch it.

  4. I think if anything the world has become more diversified. In 69 the counterculture was a new strange thing, but now there are many sub-cultures almost anywhere. My son is playing Roblox with people in Denmark and Australia, communities of all sort of obscure kinds link across great distances and we have become used to them. However people in general feel uncomfortable being in this mix and so often congregate in closed communities where people think the same and need to protect themselves from contrary ideas from the outside. These communities have become smaller and closer but also more entrenched and potentially dangerous. Easy Rider saw all this and it is just as relevant today.

    1. I agree. We're given a world with the internet that allows us to connect to people all over the world, and we've used it to insulate ourselves further by finding people around the world who agree with us.

      It's one of the reasons I've always welcomed contrary opinions on this blog as long as they are presented with respect.