Past solutions to the problems of the aged
In the past, how did tribes solve the problem of their aged?
The nomads left them at the rivers that they could not cross.
In settlements, at constant edge of survival, what did they do with unproductive old folk? As in many undeveloped countries today – what might they do?
They did not have the resources of modern medicine to keep them alive longer than they remained healthy enough to stay alive – though as Ecclesiastes and Shakespeare’s Ages of Man show, the elderly did not enjoy life, and suffered the slippered woes of The sixth age that shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
The Ballad of Narayama” is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty, in our eyes, about life trying to survive in a medieval village. The village kept itself off starvation by a tradition- among other strategies- that people over seventies went up the mountain of Narayama to die. Seventy was the latest age to remain healthy at that time. Almost everyone, including the elderly themselves, accepted this. The film showed an elderly woman planting out seedlings before she was willingly carried up the mountain by her loving son. Her only hope was that it would snow, so she would die quickly. She had had a long life, with everything she had lived for, and needed to live no longer.
“The Ballad of Narayama” is a 1958 Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens up between its origins in the kabuki style and its subject of starvation in a mountain village! It shows among other things the village enforcing the tradition of carrying those who have reached the age of 70 up the side of mountain and abandoning them there to die of exposure.
Orin, a 70-year-old widow has resignation in the face of her traditional fate is in stark contrast with the behavior of her neighbor Mata, who protests violently against his fate. Their family attitudes are similarly opposed; while Orin’s son Tatsuhei loves his mother and doesn’t have any desire to carry her up the mountainside, Mata’s family has already cut off his food, and he wanders the village as a desperate scavenger; Orin invites him in and offers him a bowl of rice, which be gobbles hungrily.
In contrast with her resignation and her son’s reluctance to carry out her sentence, Orin’s vile grandson Kesakichi can’t wait to be done with the old woman, and begins singing a song mocking the fact that she retains, at 70, all 33 of of her original teeth. This is taken up by the villagers, who materialize as a vindictive chorus, their song implying she kept her teeth because of a deal with demons. Eager to qualify for her doom, Orin bites down hard on a stone and when they see her again her mouth reveals bloody stumps. The fearful neighbor Mata appears soon after bound head and foot, dragged protesting by his son (“Don’t do this!”).
The sets and backdrops reflect the changing seasons with lush beauty: Spring, summer, the red leaves of autumn, then the wintry snows on the slopes of Narayama. On the mountaintop, blackbirds perch on snowy crags as the camera uses lateral moves to sweep across the desolate landscape. Finally depositing his mother in an empty place on the mountain, Tatsuhei greets the snow with relief: She will freeze more quickly. This he can sing only to himself, because the journey up the mountain has three strict rues: (1) you must not talk after starting up Narayama; (2) be sure no one sees you leave in the morning; (3) never look back. His adherence is in contrast with the adventures of the fearful neighbor Mata, who appears soon after bound head and foot, dragged protesting by his son (“Don’t do this!”).
Orin’s goodness and resignation are at the center of the story. In particuar, notice her kind welcome for Tama (Yuko Mochizuki), a 40-year-old widow she has decided will be the ideal new wife for her widower son. Known for her ability to catch trout when no one else can, she leads Tama through the forest on a foggy night and reveals a secret place beneath a rock in the brook where a trout is always to be found. This secret was never revealed to her first daughter-in-law. She even wants to die before her first grandchild arrives. She wants to rid the village from a hungry mouth.
Tatsuhei’s second bride Tama tells him: “When we turn 70, we’ll go together up Narayama”,
Some will find Orin’s behavior strange. So it is. Perhaps, in the years soon after World War Two, she is intended in praise of the Japanese ability to present acceptance in the face of the appalling. You can attach any set of parallels to the parable and make them work, but that seems to fit.
This scenario fitted the Japanese willingness to sacrifice for the good of everyone else, which is also seen in the kamikazi suicide flying in the 2nd world war.
The Japanese are very pragmatic, and have a history of self-sacrifice and stoicism. Their attitude to death is not that of the West.
They may well solve their ageing population now not by increasing the total population with more young people to care for them – a growth policy which must reach disaster point at some time – but by decreasing the numbers of the elderly, who must be cared for, as a source of employment by the younger group.
Decreasing the numbers of the elderly could be by the voluntary deaths of the demented and painfully-dying, two very costly groups. The Japanese people could very well be willing to do this for themselves – (and bring the numbers of adult nappies in landfill down to the numbers of child nappies.)
Up to 1950, Japanese population was under 90 million. I was there in 1950, and the place seemed just right regarding population, ability to feed itself after the war, and beautiful countryside. What further population did it need? Now in 2015, 65 years later, the population is 127 million. Will the growth stop at any time?