by Jeremy Clarke.
Originally released to international acclaim in 1952, this live-action drama chronicles the slow decline over a lifetime of an imperial lady-in-waiting, step by horrible step, to the level of a street prostitute. It’s based on the novel The Life of an Amorous Woman by Ihara Saikaku, first published in 1686 and set in the urban, red-light district culture of its day in such cities as Edo (Tokyo), Osaka and Kyoto — the same author’s Life of an Amorous Man would be turned into an anime, The Sensualist, in 1991.
For its director Kenji Mizoguchi the film represented something of a return to form after a decade in the artistic wilderness, at least as far as the Japanese were concerned. After getting into the Tokyo film industry as an actor in 1920, he became a director three years later and spent much of the 1920s and 1930s churning out films, sometimes one a week. He made over fifty titles in this period most of which are now lost. However those of the mid to late 1930s made more of an impact. Osaka Elegy, Sisters of the Gion (both 1936) and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939) focused on the plight of women in a male-dominated society. He also became known for shooting scenes in fluid and often unbroken, mobile camera takes. During World War Two he was pushed towards militaristic propaganda and in the immediate post-war years struggled with the cultural demands of the American occupation censorship board. For a decade he was regarded as old-fashioned by Japanese audiences even as the French Cahiers du Cinema critics were discovering him and rehabilitating his reputation.
That changed when The Life of Oharu ushered in a final great period of his films including Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Sansho Dayu/Sansho The Bailiff (1954). Mizoguchi himself considered Oharu his best film.
It starts off with an ageing whore (Kinuyo Tanaka) having difficulty picking up customers because of her fading looks. In a flashback, Oharu recalls her time at the Kyoto court and her subsequent banishment along with her parents following her romantic liaison with retainer Katsunosuke (rising star Toshiro Mifune), who is executed as a result.
Looking for a way out of this social cul-de-sac, her unsympathetic father sells her to a local Lord as a concubine. Lord Matsudaira’s wife is barren and he needs an heir. No sooner has Oharu birthed him a boy than the baby is removed by nurses, the Lord is advised against further sharing her bed and she’s sent back to her parents, putting her father into debt. Against her mother’s wishes her father sells her to work as a courtesan in Tokyo’s Shimabara pleasure-quarter where a wealthy customer offers to buy her freedom only for his money to later be exposed as fake. A couple take her in as a maid but on discovering Oharu’s courtesan past the wife turns against her while the husband tries to take advantage.
She ends up marrying a servant who sets up his own shop selling fans. He is killed by a robber, his uncle sells the shop and she’s left with nothing. She falls in with a nun intending to become one herself but is thrown out for immoral behaviour after a male visitor is caught attempting to rape her. She runs off with a servant who gets arrested for theft, leaving her a street beggar. Taken in by prostitutes, she is soon streetwalking which is where we came in. Her mother finds her and informs her that the late Lord Matsudaira has been succeeded by his son who wants his mother to live with them at the palace. This sounds like an upbeat, fairy tale ending but in line with the rest of the narrative it’s not to be and Oharu’s life takes a final turn for the worse, ending the film on a down note.
Where Saikaku’s source material would often allow his bibulous heroine to indulge in bawdy reminiscences, Mizoguchi completely changes the tone. His Oharu is a well-born woman who forfeits her position through the social faux pas of romance with one beneath her station. After that her former rank penalises her. In the presence of a man literally throwing money about, she is the sole person not trying to get her hands on as much of it as she can which only serves to make her all the more desirable to the money thrower. When he is revealed as a fraud, she is the one claiming the highest moral ground so falls the furthest.
Leading lady Kinuyo Tanaka had been something of a poster girl for the Japanese film industry, undertaking a 1949 tour of Hawaii and America in an attempt to bolster the nation’s image abroad. The trip is represented on the disc by 2009’s half hour documentary Kinuyo Tanaka’s New Departure and looks fine and dandy, but her open demeanour was less favourably looked on in Japan back in the day. Like her director, she had a reputation to restore with this film. She invests Oharu with a weary, deepening sadness from her opening scene onwards. However much she maintains her composure, circumstances beyond her control conspire against her throughout. For the actress, Oharu was a career high.
Film scholar Dudley Andrew contributes both a helpful, twenty-five minute commentary track to the film’s introduction and an additional, informative eighteen minute audio-visual essay Mizoguchi’s Art and the Demimonde. He describes Mizoguchi as “a perpetually aggravating individual in a society of consensus” and Oharu as stressing Buddhist moralism over the novel’s notorious lewdness. Thus the film becomes a searing exploration of one of the director’s common themes, the suffering of women.
The Life of Oharu is released on Criterion Blu-ray.