Though there’s still plenty of debate about whether it was ever common for Japan’s rural communities to deal with elderly relatives by leaving them to die on a mountain, it makes for a great story. Depicted in Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1958 period drama, “Narayama Bushiko” (“The Ballad of Narayama”) — remade by Shohei Imamura in 1983 — the practice known as ubasute plays a central role in “Dendera,” Yuya Sato’s macabre page-turner.
The twist is that, rather than accept their fate, the elderly — or at least, the elderly women — have ganged together to start a colony of their own. Here they scrape out a primitive living under the leadership of Mei Mitsuya, a 100-year-old matriarch who still dreams of attacking the village that originally abandoned them. “Everyone here is equal,” one of the residents jokes. “Everyone’s an old hag with an empty belly.”
Kayu Saitoh, the novel’s intractable heroine, and a mere stripling at 70, is initially appalled when she’s inducted into this community, denied the paradise that she thought awaited all those who “climb the mountain.” But her objections are thrust to one side when the colony comes under attack by a marauding, hungry bear, while the outbreak of a mysterious plague threatens to destroy the group’s already precarious existence.
This may sound like an allegory for the fate of Japan’s aging population, but Sato doesn’t aim for anything so profound. “Dendera” delivers plenty of visceral thrills, but little depth; whenever the thinly rendered characters start to ruminate over their destinies, the story grinds to a halt. Fortunately, there’s a cracking yarn here, too: a desperate, life-or-death tussle between some unlikely protagonists.