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: