in Criterion Month

The Life of Oharu (1952)

When we recorded the recent podcast where we picked the various films we’d be reviewing for Criterion Month this year, I admitted that I weirdly could not remember if I had seen 1952’s The Life of Oharu. After seeing that this film wasn’t released by Criterion until 2013, I deduced that I probably hadn’t seen this movie, since it seems like I would have watched it either in college or slightly thereafter. Also, after actually watching the film, none of it really felt familiar, and considering how striking the movie’s images are and how singular its sense of anguish is, I probably would have remembered this movie, especially when it features Toshiro Mifune in a non-Kurosawa supporting role. I think this uncertainty derived from the fact that I’d seen two of Kenji Mizoguchi’s slightly later films from this era, 1953’s Ugetsu and 1954’s Sansho the Bailiff, and couldn’t remember much about them, despite thinking they were both borderline masterpieces. While I wouldn’t say The Life of Oharu is quite in that league, it still shows how much of a roll Mizoguchi was on in the years leading up to his death in 1958.

The Life of Oharu opens with a shot of a woman walking down a modest street in Kyoto, who as you might assume, is Oharu (played by Kinuyo Tanaka). The year is 1686, and Oharu doesn’t have a ton of options as a woman in Japanese society, so at this point she’s middle-aged and working as a prostitute. We see her eventually walk to a Buddhist shrine, where she imagines seeing the faces of her past lovers and companions in the faces of the various statues in the shrine. This causes her to remember her first love, as we flashback to when Oharu was a young woman living at a royal court and began an affair with a lowly page  (Toshiro Mifune). However, because of this breach of feudal hierarchy, the page is beheaded and Oharu and her parents are cast out of their community.

This then precipitates a string of episodes in which Oharu comes into contact with other men, often as a concubine, or in one case, being mistaken for a concubine. She does eventually become the mistress of a respected lord in the hopes of producing an heir, which she eventually does. However, after giving birth, she is once again cast out and ends up being the servant of a wealthy married couple, and in particular spends a lot of time tending to the wife, whose hair is falling out due to an illness and must keep it from her husband. Oharu has a couple more unfortunate encounters that include marrying a fan maker who is shortly killed, as well as becoming a nun, though we eventually end up back where we started at the beginning of the film, watching Oharu as an aging prostitute on the streets of Kyoto. Though the film does eventually land on a bit happier note than you’d expect from the downward trajectory of this story.

Much like Raoul Walsh, whose High Sierra I reviewed a couple of days ago, Kenji Mizoguchi was also a director who started out making movies during the silent era — most of which are now lost — and by the sound era emerged as having an effortless style informed by years of churning out films. However, Mizoguchi was clearly much more interested in probing the human condition, and by the 1950s emerged as more or less the “third genius” to come out of post-war Japanese cinema, along with Yazujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa. Fittingly, I would say his films rest somewhere in between these two more identifiable filmmakers, as much like Kurosawa, he loves a good period piece rife with the kind of histrionic acting that’s reflective of traditional Japanese theater. However, much like Ozu, his movies are often intimate affairs that devastatingly probe the inner lives of their characters.

One thing that makes Mizoguchi’s films remarkable for their time is how often he depicted the interior lives of women, often existing through the confines of feudal Japan. The Life of Oharu is undoubtedly the most overt example of this that I’ve seen, as it is more or less a two-hour meditation on how much it sucked to be a woman during this time period. Obviously, every culture and time period has its own distinct biases against women or people of different social classes, and not being a huge aficionado of Japanese history perhaps kept me from being able to appreciate the intricacies of this film that was based on a classic Japanese novel, The Life of an Amorous Woman.

However, the ideas that the film conveys about women historically having to pander to men in order to get anywhere in life is pretty universal, and there are some remarkable visual representations of women’s oppression during this time. One that sticks out is an extended tracking shot where a group of well-dressed women are lined up in the town square to be meticulously inspected to see if they are fit to be the mistress to a local lord.

While I will say this is a pretty impressive film for a man to have directed during this period, I do have to wonder if a woman directing it would have provided a lighter touch, which it sounds like the novel it’s based on contains. This is a mostly bleak and melodramatic story, even if Mizoguchi’s tasteful camerawork and subtle editing always keeps it emotionally engaging. However, the pain and disappointment we have to watch Oharu go through does feel a little repetitive after a little while, making the last half hour or so drag a little bit, even if the movie’s “coming full circle” ending does work quite nicely. Still, you can absolutely see this as the film were Mizoguchi really started to get cooking with his signature flair for haunted tragedy, as he would go on to subsequently direct Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff in the following two years — two films that I should probably rewatch since they’ve caused me to question the memories of my own life.