Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Writer: Kenji Mizoguchi, Yoshikata Yoda (screenplay), Saikaku Ihara (novel)
Cast: Kinuyo Tanaka, Toshiro Mifune
Running time: 137 mins
1952 Venice Film Festival
Electric Shadows rating:
What’s the story: In 17th century Japan, noblewoman Oharu is exiled from Kyoto for the crime of loving someone belonging to a lower caste, beginning a lifelong struggle against misfortune.
What’s the verdict: Winner of the International Award at 1952’s Venice Film Festival, The Life of Oharu proved Japanese cinema did not start and stop with Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, grand prize winner at Venice a year before.
Where Rashomon was kinetic and visceral, The Life of Oharu was contemplative and melancholic. Oharu’s source novel, Saikaku Ihara’s The Life of an Amorous Woman written in 1686, was a bawdy satire on Japanese society. But, Mizoguchi and frequent co-writer Yoshikata Yoda replaced lewdness with melodrama, charting the central character’s slide down society’s ladder.
For Oharu, the director frequently called upon Oharu’s lead actress Kinuyo Tanaka, whom he directed in 15 movies over 14 years. Tanaka begins The Life of Oharu walking a darkened street in a rundown pleasure district, wryly informing fellow streetwalkers business is slow for a 50-year-old woman trying to pass as 20.
In a nearby temple, Oharu sees the face of a past lover in a statue, beginning a near movie length flashback to the events that have led to her selling sex in middle age.
At the time of production in the early 1950s, Japan was under US occupation. One reason the American censors finally greenlit the film was due to its depiction of female life in feudal Japan, and by extension how emancipated women were in this post-war time.
The emancipation part is wide open for debate, but Oharu’s experiences retain the power to shock almost sixty years on. 17th century Japan is a place where women are ornamental cattle, and recovering from a fall in social standing is near impossible. Donald Trump would have loved it back then…
Over eight stages of her life, Oharu is sold to a local Lord to provide him an heir when his barren wife cannot, becomes a courtesan, a handmaiden and other lowly positions. She endures suffering that would make Lars von Trier blanch and happiness is fleeting (with proponents of religion offering scant comfort).
Yet, The Life of Oharu never tumbles into turgid misery. Alongside contemporary director Mikio Naruse, Mizoguchi was renowned for films depicting the lives of Japanese women. Like classic women’s films before it such as Pandora’s Box, Jezebel and Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Life of Oharu is told with pace and compassion, leavening humour and a magnetic central performance.
The 45-year-old Tanaka passing for a 20-year-old is initially jarring. Why did Mizoguchi not cast a different actress to portray the younger version of the character? Over the 137-minute run time, as Tanaka’s performance radiates off the screen, his method becomes clear. Having that same face weathered by trials achieves an emotional charge switching actresses would have ruined.
Particularly as the film maintains a psychological distance from Oharu, who is everywoman in this story, ensnared in draconian feudal conventions and laws. Months prior to filming, Tanaka wore period dress and immersed herself in historical research in preparation.
As acknowledged in the film, not only women were targeted by oppressive regulations. Oharu’s first love, lowly soldier Katsunosuke (Kurosawa alter-ego Mifune in his only Mizoguchi film), also suffers a harsh penalty for daring to pursue a noblewoman.
Matching the epic tragedy of the story is Mizoguchi’s masterly direction. As scholar Dudley Andrew notes in the video essay included on the disc, there are only 180 shots in the 137-minute running time, for an average shot length of 46 seconds. Christopher Nolan averages 3 seconds and Steven Spielberg 6 seconds.
But, The Life of Oharu is no interminable trawl. Mizoguchi employs depth of field instead of cutting to bring movement and dynamism to his shots.
He conveys Oharu’s social imprisonment by framing her in doorways within wide shots, or positioning her behind a bamboo staircase. Oharu is shot from above looking down or at floor level, dwarfed by the various establishments in which she finds herself.
A bunraku puppet show seems to taunt the powerless woman, and in a time before Steadicam, ambitious crane shots glide amidst the meticulously created world, conveying a sense of walking amidst a lost era.
Engrossing and moving, a quiet masterpiece of Japanese cinema.
Supporting features deliver useful biographical sketches of Kenji Mizoguchi and Kinuyo Tanaka, placing The Life of Oharu within the context of their careers.
Dudley Andrew’s audio commentary during the first 25 minutes of the film discusses the source novel, frequent Mizoguchi collaborators, international reaction to the film, plus information on the director and his leading lady.
Mizoguchi: Art and the Demimonde is an 18-minute visual essay providing more biographical detail on the director and his other films that shared The Life of Oharu’s themes.
Kinuyo Tanaka’s New Departure, a 2009 documentary by Koko Kajiyama, is fascinating for its parallels with The Life of Oharu’s plot. In 1949 Tanaka, a movie star in post-war Japan, was sent on a goodwill tour of the United States. But, her perceived un-Japanese behaviour (wearing sunglasses, blowing kisses) came in for heavy criticism at home. So vitriolic was the response she considered suicide. Her work in The Life of Oharu led to a reappraisal of Tanaka by Japanese commentators, but the episode reveals US and Japanese boasts of a new era of emancipation were premature.
The transfer is of the high standard now expected of Criterion’s Blu-ray releases. Print damage is evident, but faces and background detail are presented with clarity, vital for a sense of the film’s world.
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