A film about the life of a blind woman presents a difficulty in that film is a visual medium. Presenting her story primarily through the one sense she doesn't have makes the viewer more separate from the protagonist than he or she otherwise might be, the language of the medium building the story for a us in a way she can't perceive--we're forced outside to see the character as alien. Masahiro Shinoda's 1977 film known as Ballad of Orin in the west was originally called はなれ瞽女おりん in Japan--literally something like Exiled Goze Orin, "Orin" being the name of the protagonist and "Goze" her profession. It's through her exile that Shinoda brings us her perspective, allowing him to create a film of beautiful images that very much conveys the perspective of helplessness in isolation very like the vulnerability of the blind in a turbulent world.
The subtle impression of a blind person's world being alien also communicates the solitary quality of her existence. In the movie's focus on sexual repression and abuse, the story of isolation becomes about how the human organism is crushed by the human spirit.
Goze was a profession made up exclusively of blind women, singers and musicians who lived and trained together in houses not unlike geisha. Unlike geisha, though, goze took vows of celibacy.
The women often played for parties of young, drunken men so threat and temptation were always there. Young Orin finds herself excited by the attentions of the men from whom she happily accepts drink after drink. Her love of attention and their demonstrations of lust and affection being related to the fact that she was abandoned at six years old in a small seaside shack by parents who couldn't face this difficulty of raising a blind child. The film opens with the village doctor taking the young girl to the goze house on an overcast day beside frothing, dangerous tides.
We learn Orin's history from Orin herself, who tells it to a ragged young itinerant man she shares a fire with at the beginning of the film. Shima Iwashita, the director's wife, mostly plays Orin with an air of wise, placid contentment, a fascinating contrast to the desperation that defines most of her existence. When one of the men from a party sneaks into her bed, she's expelled from the goze troupe, the measure prompted by the group's hard line on sex ironically sending the helpless Orin into a life where, as she tells the itinerant, she becomes dependant on a series of men who force themselves on her.
At the same time, she finds herself drawn to physical love and describes pleading with some men to stay with her, particularly on cold nights.
The itinerant, Heitaro (Yoshio Harada), seems to revile sex--he becomes Orin's companion and calls her his sister despite her desire that they become lovers. He supports her with the money he earns repairing and selling geta, wooden shoes.
It's hard to say how much of the love Orin develops for him is due to the fact that he's the first man not to abandon her or that he never takes their relationship to a physical level or that they're both orphans and exiles. It's the tenuousness and strangeness of their relationship that helps to crystallise the impression of profound loneliness in most of Orin's life.