This is nothing if not an extremely vivid depiction of a traditional Japanese town, where there are terrible secrets and meaningless cruelties behind the facade of order. It is brutal and sad, but there is also grace in some of the characters, in particular the kindly if deeply conservative grandmother, Orin.
The town is an agricultural outpost in 19C Japan, largely cut off from life in the city and mired in poverty. The village is so poor that the population balance must be strictly maintained: only the eldest sons are allowed to procreate or even marry, unwanted children (particularly females) are exposed to die, and elders are led to the mountain top and left to freeze or die of thirst at the age of 70. As one might imagine, this creates terrible pain for everyone, though it enables them to survive as a community in demographic stasis.
The principal character is Orin, who at 69 is robust and much loved and respected in her village. She feels shame at her health and consciously chooses to go through the ritual of passing on her right to live to the next generation. Her eldest son is full of anguish, but will also obey the forms; he is newly remarried by arrangement with a woman from a nearby village whom he has never met. She arrives hungry for life and selfish to take whatever she can for her moment. Orin's younger son is a desperately lonely man, who is treated as an outcast by the other villagers, largely because his has a deteriorating lung that makes his breath unsupportable. He is full of anger and malice, hating his taunting nephew. YOu feel sympathy for them, but more than anything they appear as selfish brutes.
The rest of the town is similarly dysfunctional. There are a number of bitter younger sons, deprived of chances at a normal life and huddled in jealousy and greed for experience. There is a horrible scene where a young woman is forced to service them in the most sordid manner, making this inappropriate for children and simply grotesque for the viewer. That is the problem with the film: in its attempts to paint a realistic picture, it is so ugly and heartless at times that it feels over the top. I do not pretend to know the historical accuracy of the films, but having lived in Japan, it certainly appeared realistic to me.
There are uplifting moments, when kindness is shown, but it has an ironic edge and a strange sense of the futility of it all. In the backdrop, there is a feeling of mystery and fear at the power of nature, as when Orin's son discharges an old rifle at a dark, billowing tree - it is poetic and evocative.
Recommended for serious enthusiasts of Japanese cinema. This is unromantic, but in many places well done.