Film Review: The Life of Oharu (1952)


After previous attempts at unsuccessfully enduring a series of flawed prints that I feared would scar my early impressions of the movie, The Life of Oharu has finally been released in a restored high definition digital transfer by the Criterion Collection, that godsend of the DVD/Blu-ray deities whom I so welcomingly pay pilgrimage to every 15th of the month by offering whatever remains I have left in my wallet. And what a wonderful investment that was.

The only time that I can recount a movie ever making me cry in my adult life was when I first watched a Kenji Mizoguchi film, so I knew I had to stock up on tissues and a self-motivation book that assured me of my masculinity when I popped this one into the blu-ray player. Bambi, on the other hand, is a different story.

Kenji Mizoguchi, often considered one of Japan’s top three film directors – along with Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu – was at a turning point in his career when he began production on Oharu. Scathed by many critics at the time for becoming “old fashioned,” Oharu would initiate Mizoguchi on a momentum of critical hits that would eventually include the ethereal ghost story Ugetsu Monogatari and the devastating family drama Sansho the Bailiff. The latter two would also garner him consecutive wins for the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. But it was The Life of Oharu which first won Mizoguchi international recognition, as well as becoming the film he considered his best in a career that spanned over thirty years.

Based on The Life of an Amorous Woman, a 17th century novel by famed Japanese writer Ihara Saikaku, a novel film scholar Dudley Andrews argues is the equivalent in cultural significance in Japanese literature as Cervantes’ Don Quixote is to the western world, Mizoguchi would mold his adaptation into a tragic tale of a respectable lady of the court’s relentless fall from grace, eventually becoming an aged prostitute. But unlike the original source, which mainly depicts its protagonist in a bawdy and satirical manner, Mizoguchi’s Oharu is anything but comedic. Her story, set in flashback, depicts the countless tragedies that hurtle Oharu down a path of social descent. A comment about the role of women in Japanese feudal times, and really about the role of women in Japanese society throughout most of its history, Oharu’s fate is dictated by the men in her life. Compromising hers and her family’s status by falling in love with a young page of a lower social rank (played by Kurosawa favorite Toshiro Mifune), her exile propels her endless misfortunes with the men she would encounter. The enigmatic Kinuyo Tanaka, who plays Oharu in a composed and stoic manner, beautifully embodies the image of repression. In fact, when she bursts into episodes of grief, it becomes as much of a cathartic experience for the viewer as it does for Oharu. I personally found myself challenged by the amount of affliction I could take in as a witness to her decline.


But that was the talent that has made Mizoguchi a lasting symbol of artistic endurance. His films often focused on the lives of women who by some misfortunate means end up becoming prostitutes or social outcasts. But always, they posses a miraculous perseverance that transcends the limitations their societies impose on them. They radiate with a spirituality not confined to a specific faith and because of that his films feel like a religion unto themselves. The fact that Mizoguchi’s own father was abusive towards his mother and sister, eventually selling his sister as a geisha, adds poignancy in his work that is empathetically unparalleled. His women are an ode to them, and they exuberant with an honesty that’s almost unbearable.

What makes The Life of Oharu a good film is the impeccable detail in craftsmanship that Mizoguchi laboriously slaved over. The composition and camera work alone are inspiring. What makes The Life of Oharu a great film is the story’s accessibility into the life of a woman who we come to sympathize even though the world around her only sees her through a surface. But what makes The Life of Oharu a revelation, and what has and will make it stand the test of time, is Oharu herself. Mizoguchi would often visit brothels just to speak to the women working there, perhaps attempting to understand his own past through them. Because of that you get the sense that a little bit of all of them are in Oharu, just like his mom and sister. Her story is the story of many, and there’s a truth in her inconceivable fate that makes her universal, encompassing centuries of oppression into a single individual. This makes her all the more enigmatic but at the same time all the more human.

You can find a comprehensive analysis praising the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release here:


The Top 30

By David Gutierrez

What better way to introduce myself than through a list – a film aficionado’s guilty pleasure – of the thirty films that have left the deepest and most indelible impressions in my viewing experience. Those life changing events that we are so susceptible to quip with movie sounding tag lines. So here they are in all their glory:

30. Throne of Blood (Kurosawa, Japan, 1957)
1957 Throne of Blood

29. Bad Company (Benton, U.S.A., 1972)

28. Hud (Ritt, U.S.A., 1963)
1963 Hud 2

No one is cooler than Hud. And I’ve watched Cool Hand Luke countless times. He’s the encapsulation of one the most enduring American cultural phenomenons: the anti-hero. Improbably handsome, narcissistic, and stylishly selfish, Hud offers the real deal to James Dean’s idealized rebel. Hud gets in at this fascination knee deep without ever being overt about it. It’s gritty and dark, showing you the dangers behind the persona. Mind you this was the time when pop-songs raved about the “outlaw” (The Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” and The Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” topped charts). Hud, which could have more or less served as a caution for its time, has and still is compelling because of its protagonist, no matter how objective one could criticize his depravity. He tempts fate with a smirk on his face and a gleam in his eye. And in the end the lone wolf finally gets what he wants, but at a high price. Still, he’ll always seem like the coolest guy you’d swear you’ve ever met.

27. To Be or Not to Be (Lubitsch, U.S.A., 1942)
1942 To Be or Not to Be

26. The Music Room (Ray, India, 1958)

25. Red River (Hawks, U.S.A., 1948)
John_Wayne - red river

24. L’Eclisse (Antonioni, Italy, 1962)
1962 L'Eclisse

The French New Wave is often credited as the gateway to modern day cinema. Godard’s experimental editing and unconventional narrative structure certainly paved the way for films such as Pulp Fiction and Memento. But the more contemporary movies I watch, the more I’m convinced that it is Michelangelo Antonioni who has had the most prominent influence today. Perhaps it’s because Antonioni seems more prescient, emphasizing the alienation amongst people desperately trying to connect, that his philosophy favors our contemporary society’s crisis now that technology is all the more intrusive. L’Eclisse, which starts with two lovers wandering in a room for the first twenty minutes, barely speaking, instantly captures the anxiety and desperation in Antonioni’s characters. This film, the bleakest in the director’s “trilogy” – along with L’Avventura (1960) and La Notte (1961) – focuses on architecture and the modern world in a manner that oppresses the people that inhabit it. Slowly, they drift into one of the most terrifying and haunting scenes in the movies.

23. Contempt (Godard, France, 1963)
1963 Contempt 2

22. Jules and Jim (Truffaut, France, 1962)
1962 Jules and Jim

21. Seventh Heaven (Borzage, U.S.A., 1927)
1927 Seventh Heaven

It was the final week of my first semester at USC. The only copy available of this film was an old T.V. recorded VHS tape catalogued in the university’s film library. And yet I still ended up bawling my eyes out. This was my introduction to Frank Borzage, a film director whose name has virtually vanished today. But at his time he was a prolific craftsman who honed his skills in romantic dramas. Perhaps because his deceitfully simple love stories seem dated to audiences with a more cynical view, you don’t hear too much about Borzage anywhere now, especially when compared to other director’s like Billy Wilder. But Borzage is truly an artist to look out for. There are no strings attached in a Borzage movie. There’s no sly ironic statement, no subversive implications, and no neurotic complexes. His films dealt with lovers who lived for one another and that was that. Outside forces would intervene but their love would endure and transcend. Even death couldn’t stop them, often liberating their barriers. Their love was pure and Borzage would deliver his story in such a dreamy-eyed manner, that you’re convinced he never lost the child in him when transitioning into adulthood.

20. Chinatown (Polanski, U.S.A., 1974)
1974 Chinatown

19. Some Like it Hot (Wilder, U.S.A., 1959)

When they say they don’t make them like they used to, I always think of “Some Like it Hot.”  The banter of classic films was always a notch up, as if the dialogue itself was set to a slightly faster motion than the image. Everyone was also so damn witty that even the family dog could have burst into witty repartee. And sitting at the top of this list of films is arguably one of the best. Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot is just so joyful, so absurd, and most importantly, so hilarious, that I often have to stop the movie not only to catch my breath but to compose my overwhelmed emotions. To speak frankly, it’s just that good. Each line is so perfectly timed and delivered that I anticipate every word spoken. And the cast is so ecstatically sublime that I want to catch that train with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, hoping that I could get off at whatever Florida it is they went to and meet the kind of people they encountered. Even the mobsters! And without getting too much into Marilyn, I don’t think I’ve ever seen another actor come alive on the screen as much as she has. There’s no comedy quite like it.

18. Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophüls, U.S.A., 1948)
1948 Letter from an Unkown Woman

17. Seconds (Frankenheimer, U.S.A., 1966)
1966 Seconds

16. Ugetsu Monogatari (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953)
1953 Ugetsu 2

15. L’Atalante (Vigo, France, 1934) 1934 L'Atalante

Stories can’t get any simpler. A young couple – Jean and Juliette – get married and go on their honeymoon in Jean’s quaint boat headed towards Paris. Once they arrive, circumstances aggravate their plans and they upset one another. Juliette sneaks out of the boat and Jean leaves without her. Then comes one of the most beautifully rendered romantic scenes in film history. Jean, hearing a folk legend where one discovers their true love if they open their eyes underwater, jumps into the sea desperate to see Juliette again. Like an angel, she appears, radiant and ethereal. This gives him the courage to go back and find her after believing that he’s lost her forever. It’s unfortunate that Jean Vigo, the director of L’Atalante, only made this one feature in his short career. Rumored that he began directing scenes on a stretcher by the end of the shoot, his close proximity to death gives the movie an added touch of poignancy. This couple, which is just getting started on its future together, exude with the life Vigo would shortly leave behind. But his legacy has endured and L’Atalante is a testament to his longevity.

14. The Last Picture Show (Bogdanovich, U.S.A., 1971)
Die letzte Vorstellung

13. In the Mood for Love (Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 2000)
2001 In the Mood for Love

12. Barry Lyndon (Kubrick, U.K./U.S.A., 1975)
1975 Barry Lyndon

There’s a Mad Magazine cover just after the film’s release that reads: “Boring Lyndon.” A lot of my friends who’ve seen the movie would probably agree. But I can sit  down and watch this three hour period piece and rerun it for days and days. Maybe it’s because it was the first Kubrick film I experienced on the big screen – a 35mm print at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood – but very few movies have engrossed me as much as this one. From the moment you hear Handel’s Sarabande before the titles, there’s something that instantly catches your attention. Ryan O’Neal, who at first appears like a terrible miscast, ends up becoming the perfect actor for the movie. I just can’t think of anyone else that could do it justice. The thing is, Barry Lyndon is funny! It’s not a gut-buster where you’re impulsively laughing out loud, but rather you take in every moment with a slight chuckle that expands in your mind. Here you have a poor sucker whose thrust upon events that he believes he was clever enough to construct himself. But like the epilogue suggests, he’s more of a chump that things happen to. Because he thinks he’s always ahead, there’s a comedic element to his tragedy. O’Neal also gives him such a droll pathetic charm, that you can’t help but like the guy even though you’re shaking your head in disappointment as you watch his life become a cosmic joke.

11. Journey to Italy (Rossellini, Italy/France, 1954)
Voyage to Italy

10. The Lady Eve (Sturges, U.S.A., 1941)
1941 The Lady Eve

He’s an heir that’s been up the Amazon for far too long. She’s a con artist looking for her next victim to swindle. Add a body of brilliant character actors and lines by one of the most influential comedic screenwriters in Hollywood, and you’ve got yourself an instant classic. The Lady Eve is one of several screwball comedies that the studio system churned out in its heyday – the 1930’s and 1940’s. The fact that there were so many masterpieces of the genre (Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey, The Awful Truth, Holiday, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, etc.) is a concept that I still can’t wrap my head around. But what really makes this film stand out for me are its two leads. Henry Fonda, the folksy Okie from John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, is perfect as the awkward and naive Charles Pike, heir to the Pike Ale fortune. He’s so gung-ho about his obsession with snakes that you know Preston Sturges had more than a job description for the character in his mind. And Barbara Stanwyck, a personal favorite of mine, is truly inspiring as the sharp-witted Jean Harrington. Here’s an actress who always gave it her all in each performance she delivered. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever watched a film where she lacked intensity. With Preston Sturges as the director, you see both actors in top form, and we’re all the more grateful for that.

9. Badlands (Malick, U.S.A., 1973)
1973 Badlands

8. Viridiana (Buñuel, Spain/Mexico, 1961)
1961 Viridiana 2

7. Notorious (Hitchcock, U.S.A., 1946)
1946 Notorious

6. My Darling Clementine (Ford, U.S.A., 1946)
1946 My Darling Clementine

One of the toughest decisions in compiling this list was deciding on what John Ford film to select as my personal favorite. There are just so many! The InformerStagecoachYoung Mr. LincolnThey Were Expendable, Wagon MasterThe Quiet ManThe Searchers. The list goes on and on. So when I finally narrowed my choice between The Grapes of Wrath and My Darling Clementine, I realized that there’s a certain Ford mentality that I’m instantly drawn to. His films with John Wayne are exhilarating. They embody the energy and excitement associated with the frontier – what we come to define as the western. But his films with Henry Fonda take on a different tone. Fonda’s stoicism and refrained demeanor give his movies with Ford a weight full of wisdom. They’re slower and more pensive. In regards to My Darling Clementine, they focus on the final days of the nomadic cowboy. Westward expansion had reached the Pacific and now it was time to settle. In fact, death is always a presence in the film but it is never feared. It’s part of a cycle that all the characters seem to subconsciously understand and accept in order for the new to emerge. That always seemed more haunting to me than the gunfight at O.K. Corral.

5. Rocco and His Brothers (Visconti, Italy, 1960)
1960 Rocco and His Brother 2

4. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Altman, U.S.A., 1971) – Tie
1971 McCabe and Mrs. Miller

Leonard Cohen’s gravelly voice croons the tale of a rambling man’s wandering life. In the background you have snowy woods painted in murky colors. This is the mesmerizing and soothing introduction to Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. And in a way, the film never leaves this state of mood. Cohen’s voice, burdened with a nostalgic sadness, sets the proper tone for a film that already misses its story before it even tells it. John McCabe, played in a surprisingly well-acted role by Warren Beatty, arrives at Presbyterian Church, an emerging town. Hoping to run a successful bar and brothel, he evades stories about his gunslinging days. This becomes the central theme of the film which demythologizes the western hero. He falls in love with Mrs. Miller, his business partner and an upscale prostitute, but his past eventually catches up to him. The beauty in the story here is McCabe’s inner conflict. You have a sensitive individual who is trying all he can not to show his vulnerability. He’s got a past to live up to and a mythology far too important for him to disappoint. This leads to a tragic showdown that makes one question the morality of the genre.

4. Nashville (Altman, U.S.A., 1975): – Tie
1975 Nashville 2

3. The Rules of the Game (Renoir, France, 1939)
1939 The Rules of the Game

2. The Crowd (Vidor, U.S.A., 1928)
1928 The Crowd

1. On The Waterfront (Kazan, U.S.A., 1954)

I’ve seen it dozens of times. I can probably quote each line like a preacher quotes the bible. And yet, On the Waterfront always grips me at every single viewing. It’s the movie that got me into movies. I had already been introduced to Marlon Brando before, watching A Streetcar Named Desire and The Godfather in high school. But to me he’s Terry Malloy, the wounded and lost soul trying to make sense of his life. He took the falls and continues to take the orders. But he’s in with the wrong crowd. His brother and him were orphans who clung to a waterfront mob for survival. Unfortunately for Terry, they undermined and sold his boxing career for a couple of bucks. Now he crowds around the big dogs hoping to get some of the crumbs. They pat him on the head and tell him he’s done a good job. But with the push of an angelic Eva Marie Saint and a direct, no-nonsense preacher played by Karl Malden, he allows his conscious to do the guiding for him, redeeming his past mistakes. And with the added complexity of the film’s political implications, On the Waterfront does more than hold its own as a masterpiece of storytelling. I wish that everyone has a movie they love as much as I love this one. Life gets that much better if you do.