Criterion Collection Review #664: Kenji Mizoguchi's 'The Life of Oharu' (1952)

“Whatever we do, the world’s not about to change.” It’s not quite clear whether this defeatist philosophy, uttered by one of “The Life of Oharu”’s anonymous aging streetwalkers, is meant to be taken at face value. For much of Kenji Mizoguchi’s film it holds true. Women had very little say in their own lives in Feudal Japan, and it was plenty worse for those lower on the social ladder. On the other hand, Oharu herself (the transcendent Kinuyo Tanaka) is portrayed as the spiritual beneficiary of such mistreatment, a life of suffering leading to a hinted-at enlightenment. Is Mizoguchi indicting an entire society’s misogyny, or simply painting a fuller picture in order to elevate stoic, passive dignity?

To be fair, he’s really doing both at once. Yet there is an inherent complexity in depicting the villainy of an unjust system and the sainthood of its victims. Moreover, in spite of the film’s centuries-old subject matter, The Life of Oharu remains quite resonant today. Its narrative is one of rape culture, victim blaming and sexual objectification, phenomena that continue to plague contemporary discourse. The most egregious practices of the 17th century are long gone, certainly in Japan and the United States, but the overall themes of the work ring true. Oharu’s story is filled with prejudice and violence, almost never allowed to make her own decisions but constantly persecuted for her situation. In a time when Americans are confronting the newly-defined but age-old practice of slut-shaming, a film like “The Life of Oharu” is rife with meaning.

Mizoguchi opens with Oharu’s twilight. By this point she has become a sex worker of the street, the lowest point of her long and arduous life. Haunted by her memories, she enters a temple and recognizes an old lover in one of the statues of an arhat (one who has achieved nirvana). This begins a flashback that will make up the bulk of the film, beginning with her days as a young noblewoman of the Imperial Court. Yet this early peace does not last long. In love with a man beneath her station (Toshiro Mifune), she falls into his arms against her better judgment. When they are found out, she and her family are banished from Kyoto and her lover is executed. His final plea to Oharu is that she may never agree to marry a man she does not love.

Of course, Mizoguchi has made it perfectly clear that such a happy wedding is not going to happen. Instead she ends up sold by her father as a concubine to a local lord. After she gives him a son and heir, his advisers take away her infant and boot her from the court. And this is only an early tragedy. She will be bullied, accused and disrespected by husbands, pimps and clients who all operate under the assumption that she deserves and, more troublingly, desires all that she has been dealt. This perpetual, indecent admonishment of Oharu is a form of victim blaming that we are hardly free from today.

Mizoguchi, making this film in the context of the US occupation of Japan and the imposition of a new constitution committed to women’s rights, is aware of this. The nameless protagonist of his source material, Ihara Saikaku’s 1686 novel Life of an Amorous Woman¸ descends the social ladder because she cannot control her own desire, quite explicitly. Mizoguchi, while not updating the setting, gives his heroine a name and emancipates her from the particular misogyny of 17th century “floating world” literature.

the life of oharu

Rather than portray Oharu as depraved, therefore, Mizoguchi turns her into a paragon of dignity. When inevitably her temporary happiness is thwarted by a violent accident or the discovery of her previous sexual travails, she understands the futility of any real resistance and steels herself for the loss of friend, employment and home. In these moments Mizoguchi places her behind screens, in shadows, beyond doorways and at the edge of the frame, emphasizing her marginality while Tanaka performs a resolute kind of pessimistic understanding. In one scene she is even temporarily out of focus, looming in the background as a group of men decide her fate.

In the film’s last scenes, after the tumultuous past winds its way back to Oharu’s bleak present, things begin to turn. Mizoguchi places his aging protagonist next to the remaining wall of a collapsed building, an image that would be echoed in the climax of a kindred film almost thirty years later: Roman Polanski’s “Tess”. Yet while this old house may be shot as if it were Stonehenge, it has a much more terrestrial implication. Mizoguchi seems to be suggesting a link between Oharu’s rock bottom and the decay of society, with an image that looks more like the Post-War devastation of Japan’s cities than it does the 1600s. This is the breaking point that sends her to the temple and then off into a final, breathtaking sequence in which she refuses to back down for the first time in her life.

“The Life of Oharu” does not have a happy ending. From the first few moments, it is clear how impossible that would be. Yet beneath this mountain of oppression and hardship, Mizoguchi has placed a religious way out. The suffering of Oharu, the film’s final sequence suggests, has been a path to enlightenment. An off-screen choir sings a Buddhist chant and she smiles, close to peace as a wandering beggar. In a way this is quite bold, suggesting a woman who has spent her whole life being accused of sexual impropriety by men of higher class is actually closer to enlightenment.

However, it is hardly that simple. Oharu’s virtue comes from her ability to withstand the onslaught of a misogynistic society, rather than her determination to fight back. Her occasional moments of resistance are presented with empathy, to be sure, but they do not govern the narrative of her spiritual strength. As a challenge to the prevailing unfairness in the representation of women’s sexuality of both the 1950s and today, it is a powerful work. Yet the value it places on turning the other cheek, while radical and intriguing in a religious context, is perhaps too conservative in other ways.

To put it another way, here’s an example from outside the film. Tanaka visited Hollywood in the winter of 1949-1950. Upon her return she resolved to turn from acting to directing, a move that was not supported by many in the Japanese directors’ union. While she was supported by both Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse, Mizoguchi was outspoken in his belief that women should not direct. The irony of this, coming from a man who had devoted his career to making films about women, shouldn’t be brushed off. “The Life of Oharu” is, to a degree, an important reframing of how women are represented. Its emphasis on sexuality and life outside of marriage is certainly more progressive than much of Ozu’s work. Yet at the end of the day, perhaps Mizoguchi has told a story with too narrow a definition of female virtue. This enigmatic, problematic masterpiece deserves to sit in dialogue with films written and directed by women.

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THE TRANSFER: "The Life of Oharu" has never been an especially well-preserved film, as anyone who has caught it at a recent rep screening might be able to attest (the print that played at Film Forum a couple of years ago was serviceable but obviously damaged). Criterion's high-definition transfer naturally suffers from inherited flaws, but – all things considered – does a remarkable job restoring clarity to the picture and diminishing the damage as best it can. The film can't hide its age entirely, but the image is strong, stable and as good as one could realistically expect.

THE EXTRAS: This isn't one of Criterion's most lavish editions, but the extras that are provided are all well worth your time, even when they leave you eager for more. A prime example is Dudley Andrew's commentary track, which only covers the first 30 minutes of the film. The insight he provides as to the unique dynamic shared between Mizoguchi and his lead actress is compelling, but with such a wealth of knowledge at his disposal you'll wish he could have expounded on the entire film. Andrew also contributes an audio essay about the influence of art on Mizoguchi's filmmaking, and the role that women played at the core of his expression. The real highlight here is a 30-minute doc called "The Travels of Kinuyo Tanaka,"  which chronicles the actress' complicated career, providing a compelling portrait of a vital (and critically under-appreciated) film star.

THE ARTWORK: Criterion's cover art repurposes the film's most iconic image in a way that maximizes its desolation, the title's vertical typeface speaking to the gravitas and severe solemnity of Mizoguchi's tragedy. Perfection.

The Criterion Collection will release "The Life of Oharu" on DVD & Blu-ray on July 9, 2013.