Friday, April 15, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: The Life of Oharu (1952)

The Life of Oharu (1952) ****
Directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi.
Written by: Kenji Mizoguchi & Yoshikata Yoda based on the novel by Saikaku Ihara.
Starring: Kinuyo Tanaka (Oharu), Tsukie Matsuura (Tomo, Oharu's Mother), IchirĂ´ Sugai (Shinzaemon, Oharu's Father), ToshirĂ´ Mifune (Katsunosuke), Toshiaki Konoe (Lord Harutaka Matsudaira), Kiyoko Tsuji (Landlady), Hisako Yamane (Lady Matsudaira), Hiroshi Oizumi (Bunkichi), Takashi Shimura (Old Man), Benkei Shiganoya (Jihei).

Akira Kurosawa, Yashujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizogichi are widely regarded as the three greatest filmmakers in Japanese history. Of these three, Mizoguchi is the least well known in North America, mainly because his films are the hardest to find. While almost the entire careers of Kurosawa and Ozu are widely available, there are still gaping holes in what you can find for Mizoguchi (I had to look long and hard to find this film, and there are others that I want to screen for this series that so far I have had little luck in finding). Fortunately, this gradually seems to be changing, and Mizoguchi is taking his rightful place alongside those other two master filmmakers.

Mizoguchi is regarded by some as the first feminist filmmaker – and watching the The Life of Oharu it is easy to see why. The movie takes place in the 1700s, and watches as Oharu’s life is destroyed by the men she meets. Her struggle is all because she makes one mistake as a teenager – that is she falls in love with a man (Toshiro Mifune) below her social standing. When their affair is discovered, she and her parents are banished from the city – which is better treatment than Mifune gets, as he is beheaded. Her father talks of the shame she has brought down on their house, and can barely speak to his daughter. Then she is sent off to be the concubine of Lord Matsudaira, as his wife is sick, and he has no heir. The hope is that she will produce a son – which she does. However, while she (and especially her father) thinks this sets her up for life, it isn’t long before the Lord’s underlings think she is too much of a distraction for their leader, and she is sent home with only a few dollars – not to see her son again for years.

On and on it goes. Oharu is sold as a courtesan, but sent home once again in shame. She is sent to be the servant of another family, who adores her and looks to find her husband, until they discover her past. The husband of this family, who previously had seemed so nice, thinks that if she was once and concubine and a courtesan, than he should have the right to have sex with her as well. The wife, upon discovering them, doesn’t blame her lecherous husband, but Oharu. When she finally meets a man who knows her past, but doesn’t care, things seem to finally be changing for her – but then he is murdered, and she is once again on her own, ending up a street prostitute. When Lord Matsudaira dies, and his (and Oharu’s) son takes over, he sends for her and wants to make her life easier. But once again, the underlings step in – how could she let herself become a prostitute. She is the mother of the Lord, and she has once again brought shame on herself and her family.

Mizoguchi considered The Life of Oharu his greatest film. Although I haven’t seen all of his films, I would say it does rank behind the films he made just after this one – Ugetsu (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954) – yet when the films are this good, it is hard to really complain. His upbringing greatly influenced Mizoguchi – his father was unable to support his family, and both his mother and sister were sold to a geisha house as a result of this. His films often deal with oppressed women, and class struggle, two themes that The Life of Oharu certainly deals with. Oharu has no power over her own fate – she is just a woman, and as such, her decisions are made by the men around her. The only decision she made for herself was to fall in love with Mifune early in the film – and it is this decision that would be her downfall. Everything that happens to her after that is beyond her control. She is a woman, she thought for herself, and she is punished for it.

In the lead role Kinuyo Tanaka gives a remarkable, yet subtle performance. Oharu is a woman who tries not to get down herself, not to become depressed with what has happened to her, but who nevertheless gets everything stripped away from her. Eventually, she will throw up her hands and proclaim that she no longer desires anything earthly – that all she wants is to become a nun and be close to Buddha. But even this, it seems, is too much to ask for Oharu.

As a director, Mizoguchi favored long takes, and here is camera glides effortlessly throughout the villages, cramped houses and the palace, where the movie takes place. The film was underfinanced, and much of it had to be shot in an old warehouse instead of a soundstage – which made things difficult since the warehouse was close to train tracks, and every time a train came by, it would ruin Mizoguchi’s shot. Undaunted, he pushed on, and created one of his best films. It feels like a personal project – one that Mizoguchi had to make, and that passion is on display in every frame.

The final shot in the movie is haunting – and one that I simply cannot get out of my head. What does it really mean? I like to think that Oharu is at peace in that final shot – that despite the humiliations visited upon her throughout the course of the movie, now that she has once again seen her son, that she can now rest – perhaps die – and be happy. There was certainly little happiness in her life – perhaps in there will be in death.

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