Life of Oharu, The (1952)

Mizoguchi’s chronicle of one woman’s descent from nobility to prostitution is emotionally intense and terribly bleak.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Review #1,209

Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
1952 | Japan | Drama | 136 mins | 1.37:1 | Japanese
Not rated – likely to be PG13 for some sexual references

Cast: Kinuyo Tanaka, Tsukie Matsuura, Ichiro Sugai, Toshiro Mifune
Plot: A 50-year-old prostitute, no longer able to attract men, looks back on her sad life. Once a lady-in-waiting at the imperial court at Kyoto, Oharu fell in love with, and became the lover of, a man below her station. 
Awards: Won International Award & Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice)
Source: Toho

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Gender, Discrimination, Class
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse

Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
First Published: 3 Sep 2015
Spoilers: No

Kenji Mizoguchi.  The name brings fond admiration and reverence for a consummate filmmaker beloved by critics. 

Often placed in the same pedestal as Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, Mizoguchi made numerous breakthroughs as a filmmaker throughout his career, but finally gained the kind of recognition and acclaim in his later years with masterpieces like Ugetsu (1953), Sansho the Bailiff (1954), and the social conscious film Street of Shame (1956). 

The Life of Oharu, coming from Kurosawa’s important Golden Lion win at the Venice Film Festival for Rashomon in 1950, marks the beginning of an auspicious late period for this masterful director. 

Oharu, the title character, is one of the most tragic of women characters in Japanese cinema, maybe even in world cinema. Born into a middle-class family, and awaiting to join the ranks of royalty when she is summoned to marry into a noble family, Oharu is torn between doing just that or elope with her lover, a lowly peasant.  

The film brings into play a myriad of issues affecting Japanese women in the 16th century Edo period, including discrimination against women, class differences, abuse of authority, and prostitution. 

“Lady Oharu, a human being – no, woman – can only be happy if she marries for love.  Rank and money don’t mean happiness.”

The frightening thing is that these issues are still apparent in some parts of the world half a millennium later.  There’s a kind of prescient quality in Mizoguchi’s work, at once informing us about the Way of the World, however dastardly it is, yet also giving us a pool of empathy to dive in as we follow Oharu’s descent into hell. 

Mizoguchi has always been a woman’s director, and it shows in Kinuyo Tanaka’s superb performance as Oharu.  She brings a sense of quiet determination to overcome her character’s vulnerable circumstances, but they are too much for anyone to bear.  

The Life of Oharu brings to the cinematic table a strong, depressing taste of fatalism and inevitability, but the director being a Buddhist convert himself also grapples with religion as a possible (or perhaps only) form of mortal redemption through spiritual attainment. 

An important film for Mizoguchi, who regarded it as his personal favourite, The Life of Oharu is a bitter pill to swallow – it awakens you to the harsh realities of human existence, the kind marked by intolerable cruelty and zero compassion.

Grade: A


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