24th Apr2017

‘The Life of Oharu’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Kinuyo Tanaka, Toshiaki Onoe, Benkei Shiganoya, Tsukie Matsuura | Written by Kenji Mizoguchi, Yoshikata Yoda | Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi


The overarching Buddhist message of Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1952 epic should provide a clue as to the sheer depth of misery our eponymous heroine must endure in her lifetime. Death, and another chance in the next life, seems like her only solace. As Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) traverses 17th-Century Japan, at every turn events transpire against her, and glimpses of redemption are swiftly consumed by the shadow of despair.

It actually starts off okay. As a young woman, Oharu is spoiled by the romantic ideals of love. “The nobility makes sport of sincerity,” says her admirer, Katsunosoke (Toshiro Mifune), “turning it into mere wordplay.” He breaks through the caste order and wins her heart. But their love is forbidden and their affair begins the snowball of catastrophe.

There is an essential irony in the idea of a woman shamed for fraternising outside of her class being redeemed by becoming a concubine to the Imperial Court. The man who needs an heir is Lord Matsudaira of Edo (Toshiaki Onoe). Oharu is “allowed to give birth”, after which she is sent home. Her parents are ashamed, so she’s sold as a courtesan. But that falls through too.

Every flicker of hope is pinched out just as quickly. Following a further series of tribulations, the place where Oharu finds most compassion and sisterhood is in later life, with a group of ageing prostitutes. The most pitiful places can sometimes harbour the greatest wealth of compassion. Except she’s now a “goblin cat in human form” in the eyes of mankind.

Mizoguchi’s filmcraft is the equal of Kurosawa. Throughout, he employs expressionistic noirish lighting, with shadows given an intriguing new dimension through the paper walls. His camera is always moving – never able to settle, just like Oharu. And he fills the frame with meaning. There is the leitmotif of stones and statues. Katsunosoke and Oharu’s disallowed love is represented by a pair of figurines: together but always apart. Later, when he is sentenced to death, Oharu runs into the woods in distress and collapses before two larger statues. Love has grown, but still kept separate. Later still, as she works as a prostitute, a potential client throws Oharu to the ground for being too old. She lands by fallen stones. Gravestones? Finally, it is the statues in a temple that overwhelm her, representing the power of men. When she wakes a key male figure is dead.

Though this is no picaresque, the film follows an episodic structure. The editing can be confusing, leaving us unclear of great chunks of passed time, with sparse introduction to new characters. Perhaps this is partly deliberate, not least as it gives us a sense of the powerlessness of Oharu. One of the key themes is the ravaging nature of time. It starts with the early idealism of youth, whereby Oharu learns – or should learn – the restraints of her society. She must accept or resist her predetermined place. In refusing to do so, and in consistently trying to maintain her dignity in the face of repeated humiliation, the film examines the myriad of ways a youth-obsessed patriarchal culture bears down upon female progress (in Oharu’s case, via a perfect storm of exploitation). Moreover how social systems, particularly those involving the chastisement of women, can ruin an individual. We are left in no doubt that those who suffer are not simply there through choice and lifestyle, but social circumstance and cultural determinism.

In the end, Oharu’s only solace is to look to the next life – which can surely be no worse than this one. “Buddhahood is incomparable,” the hymn goes. Tanaka’s performance – as psychologically punishing as any female role in a Lars Von Trier movie – is the core around which the cruel world and its punitive dominant males gravitate. If her ordeal sounds one-note, that’s because it is. But along the way Mizoguchi provides great texture and complexity. It’s an odyssey to sadden, but led by a character to inspire endless pride and compassion.

The unusually minimal Criterion extras include an illustrated audio essay by film scholar Dudley Andrew, who also provides a 28-minute commentary. Most intriguingly, we get The Life of Kinuyo Tanaka, a documentary about the Oharu actress’s three-month goodwill tour of America in 1949.

The Life of Oharu is out on Blu-ray now from Criterion.


Comments are closed.