While watching the DVD of “The Life Of Oharu,” a 1952 film by Kenji Mizoguchi, I was put into mind of the Theo Angelopoulos film, “The Weeping Meadow,” the first part of a trilogy the film director did not complete before his death. Normally, one might think that the two other great Mizoguchi films I had seen- “Ugetsu” and “Sansho the Bailiff”- would have resonated more, but, no, it was the Greek filmmaker’s epic that stared at me from the weave of this black and white film. Yet, whereas “The Weeping Meadow” is as masterful a film on sorrow and loss as I have ever seen, there is virtually no humor in it. The same cannot be said as so for “The Life Of Oharu”- a film that charts the decline and fall of a minor noblewoman’s life over several decades due to love and bad decisions that lead her into a life of destitution and prostitution.
Yet, as with many Japanese films of this Golden Age, humor is rife within this film- and it is dark and often bawdy. That alone does not make it a great film, and it is not on par with the other two masterpieces, but the film has to rank, at minimum, in the near great category, for, as I write this essay, a week or so after seeing the film, there are moments that still stick and resonate. And, clocking in at 136 minutes in length, the film seemingly breezes along. It never feels bloated nor padded for the episodes and years pass quite quickly within. The screenplay was written by Mizoguchi and Yoshikata Yoda, and was adapted from a darkly comic novel by Saikaku Ihara, written in 1696, and the breeziness of the film has the off the top of the head feel of many pre-modern approaches to drama or melodrama
The tale opens with Oharu Okui as a fifty year old prostitute in a temple. There, she sees the face of her first lover, Katsunosuke (Toshirō Mifune, in a brief cameo), a lower ranked page who was executed when their love affair became known. Oharu and her family were then banished to the country. Her horrid father berated her and her mother did little to help, and Oharu contemplated suicide until, well, life moved on. A greatly comic scene follows wherein Lord Matsudaira sends one of his old aides to Kyoto to find a perfect concubine to bear him an heir, as his wife is barren. Many beautiful women are rejected for absurd reasons, but Oharu gets the job, and this wins her father’s affections until, after giving birth to her son- the heir, she is discarded, and her father ends up in debt. He then wants to sell her to a brothel but her mother objects. Her life as a courtesan also fails, and a counterfeiter almost buys her, but then is exposed. Then she becomes a servant girl to a family whose mistress was ill and lost her hair and keeps the secret from her husband, The woman then thinks Oharu seduced her husband when she really was raped, and chops off her hair. Oharu then gets revenge and ends up back with her family. All seems lost until a lowly fan maker falls in love with her and they open up a fan shop. For a brief while, all seems ok, and then he is murdered by a highwayman. Yet again Oharu is alone, broke, and decides to become a Buddhist none, until an old acquaintance from Lord Matsudaira’s court tries to rape her, and she is thrown out.
Notice a pattern? Death, rape, prostitution, degradation. In a sense, this all makes” The Life Of Oharu” not a tragedy but a melodrama, however well wrought and acted. The very lengths of the suffering this one women puts up with become almost comical. By the end of the film, we see her back at the temple wherein the film started. She sees her son, the new Lord Matsudaira, since his father died, and she attempts to see him, only to be sequestered by the Lord’s men. Unable to even get the satisfaction of knowing her son, she can choose to be a prisoner or a beggar, and the film ends with her going door to door for handouts. In a bad film, this would be nothing short of depressing, but “The Life Of Oharu” is far from a bad film, if not a fully fledged great film.
No, there is no nobility in suffering, but there is nobility in trying, and, despite failures of her own making, and that of circumstance, Oharu never gives up. Her pluck, her grit- whatever one may call it, carries the film over and above its comic absurdities and almost into sublimity. Kinuyo Tanaka, as Oharu, is excellent, and walks the line between period character and modern struggling woman convincingly. She seems to embody grit, and her scenes of woe and degradation- especially in one scene where a man actually pays to mock her in front of young men, calling her a goblin cat in a didactic morality lesson that reveals more of his cruelty than her degradation, and she fights back, are beautiful in an ugly way. Tsukie Matsuura, as Tomo, Oharu’s mother, is solid in a minor role, whereas her dumb, cowardly father, played by Ichirō Sugai, provides some comic relief in key moments that are counterbalanced by his venality and evil. The rest of the characters shuffle in and out so quickly in the film that to name them is superfluous.
Mizoguchi makes some wise choices in the telling of a tale that, if not done just that way, might have been weak comedy or banal melodrama. There is a scene where Oharu finally catches a glimpse of her son, the new Lord, and there is silence on the screen- it is as if time has stopped, and it prefigures a great moment in the American horror film, “Carnival Of Souls,” a decade later, albeit for different reasons. We are forced to bear witness to the agonies of a mother sundered from her offspring and even from her joy and pride. But, what resonates is the power of silence. For a few moments, a viewer must think that there is something wrong with the film, or the audio equipment. Then the realization that this is meant to be sets in, and the power wallops one a second time. Unlike his other films I’ve seen, “The Life Of Oharu” seems an underfinanced Mizoguchi film. There are times it feels like a bit too much of a stage play, and could have benefited from less scenes set indoors. This, along with a few comic moments that are forced, are the main reasons why “The Life Of Oharu” is not a flat out great film. The soundtrack, by Ichirō Saitō, never leads the action, therefore stays within its emotional bounds, and the cinematography, by Yoshimi Hirano and Yoshimi Kono, is also solid- nothing that grabs the eye, but nothing blatantly bad, either.
The Criterion Collection DVD is a solid offering, albeit limited, as the golden age of DVDs has passed. The black and white film is shown in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, and, while solid, it is far from a perfect print. The first few minutes of the film have commentary by Japanese film expert Dudley Andrew, but why this could not have been extended for the whole DVD is a shame, for what little is given is solid. Other DVD features include a 2009 film called “The Travels Of Kinuyo Tanaka,” which runs 30 minutes and shows the actress on a 1949 tour of America. Andrews does an audio essay on Mizoguchi, Mizoguchi’s” Art And The Demimonde,” and the DVD booklet has a Gilberto Perez essay.
“The Life Of Oharu” succeeds, overall, because its protagonist is never stereotyped. While she is treated badly by life, in general, and individuals, she also makes some manifestly bad choices. He descent is not her choice alone, but it is not unaided by her own human folly, either. Hence, the film complexes where, in the hands of a lesser director, it would have been an unending litany of suffering. It pays to be a master.