Reviewed by: Paul Griffiths

In 1983, Shohei Imamura’s The Ballad Of Narayama saw a Japanese village’s long-held laws decree that its elders must die when they turn 70. This ensured there were enough resources for the up and coming generations to survive until it was their turn. The film was based on a novel by Schichiro Fukazawa and went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Dendera is a sequel of sorts, based on a Yuya Sato book but written and directed by Daisuke Tengan, Imamura’s eldest son no less. Having been described as an unexpected follow-up, it doesn’t really make its case as a necessary one.

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Tengan starts with Kayu (Ruriko Asaoka) resignedly receiving her death sentence from the male village authorities. Soon she is ceremonially carried up the snow-carpeted mountain to be abandoned, a ritual which presents her very much as the burden the village deem her to be. She prays for a promised afterlife amid the bleached and beautiful scenery until she finally collapses, impatient crows picking at her legs.

Kayu wakes in a warm shelter, having been rescued by mysterious scavenging hands. She is in Dendera, at first thinking she has really died and then disbelieving what she sees. A hidden community of aged women is eking out an existence on the forbidden mountainside, having decided that, actually, they didn’t want to freeze to death because someone told them to. Some are happy to be free of patriarchal laws and constraints while others keep warm with plans of murderous revenge on their old village down below.

Nevertheless, they are all surrounded by the forces and threats of Mother Nature. Slowly Kayu has to adapt to a very different kind of afterlife to the one she had been conditioned to expect.

Dendera's clearly delineated by its three acts. After the graceful start, Tengan sets off on his own trajectory when Kayu enters the hidden colony, veering away from his father's work towards a much more commercially flavoured affair. This ramps up significantly when a huge bear starts attacking during the harsh winter. Some of these sequences are satisfyingly perilous and gripping. Gory, too, as time and again great mauling paws splash buckets of blood over the pristine snow.

Intermittent flashbacks fill in Dendera’s history as events build up to a few heroic actions, for some. Nothing comes of the Lord Of The Flies potential, though, and the ordeals and cod lessons that Kayu and the women endure become increasingly less persuasive, leaving the two hours running time to drag.

There's some broad humour as the stock chorus characters are subject to light and heavy mockery. Be it as cackling OAPs practicing their bayonet charging or when making bawdy sexual jokes, echoing back to Imamura’s Ballad, Tengan’s treatment reduces any serious points he may have made to rather demeaning septuagenarian girl power, at best. In truth, although the story sets up Dendera in contrast to the traditional male norm, there’s little new empowerment or deeper understanding gained. This slenderness is pronounced at the end. We can guess the action’s climax far too early and then Tengan seems unsure how to finish things off. Instead, he hands decisions about ultimate conclusions back to us. This would be fine if we hadn’t been struggling on a one-note journey to get there.

Reviewed on: 30 Oct 2011
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A sequel to The Ballad of Narayama by Imamura's son Daisuke Tengan: the old women sent up the mountain to die instead plan a revenge attack on the village below.
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Director: Daisuke Tengan

Writer: Daisuke Tengan

Starring: Ruriko Asaoka, Mitsuko Baisho, Yoko Yamamoto, Mitsuke Kusabe

Year: 2011

Runtime: 119 minutes

Country: Japan


London 2011

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Ballad Of Narayama