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With: Kinuyo Tanaka, Toshiro Mifune, Masao Shimizu, Tsukie Matsuura, Ichiro Sugai, Toshiaki Konoe, Hisako Yamane, Daisuke Kato, Yuriko Hamada, Komako Hara, Kikue Mouri, Haruyo Ichikawa, Kyoko Kusajima, Eitar™ Shind™, Sadako Sawamura, Akira Ooizumi, Eijiro Yanagi, Jukichi Uno
Written by: Yoshikata Yoda, based on a novel by Saikaku Ihara
Directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Japanese, with English subtitles
Running Time: 136
Date: 04/20/1954

The Life of Oharu (1952)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Dust for 'Life'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The life of Oharu is not a good one. She never seems to get a break. Even if it looks like she's about to get some good news, it's evident that the other shoe is about to drop. What's more, Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) never did anything to anyone to deserve this kind of life (if you can call it "life"). She merely exists.

So for 136 minutes she is continually beaten down and made to suffer. Why, then, is The Life of Oharu considered one of the greatest of all Japanese films? It's because the director, Kenji Mizoguchi, showed incredible sympathy toward his hapless, helpless heroine. He never once flinches.

Oharu begins with what looks to be a rather normal life. A man of lower caste (Toshiro Mifune) confesses his love for her, but they are caught together. She and her family are nows outcasts. Next, she is given a chance to become Lord Matsudaira's concubine and to bear his child, a child that will be next in line for the throne. That works out for a little while, and the lord even likes her, but when he falls ill, she is blamed and kicked out.

She begins work as a courtesan, but causes trouble when a counterfeiter shows up. She becomes a maid for a woman who has lost all her hair, but her past is discovered and she's disgraced once again. She even tries to become a nun, but a man tries to seduce her and she's caught and thrown out. She takes up with a thief, but the thief is arrested. Finally, she's offered a chance to live with her son at the palace, but it turns out that she's such a disgrace, that she's only allowed one last look at him, from a discreet distance.

If that's not enough, the film is told in flashback, from the point of view of the 50 year-old Oharu, forced to work as a common prostitute, and ridiculed for her age and withered, haggard looks. So all through the movie, it's clear that Oharu's luck will never change. But is it luck? Everything that happens to her is the doing of a cruel society, short-sighted men, and ridiculous rules. The movie seems to be saying that all of these people around Oharu are actually choosing to treat her this badly. So much for "do unto others."

Mizoguchi is meticulous about the film's decoration, and he manages to keep Oharu immobile between vertical lines in most shots. She's rarely seen moving from side-to-side -- which might suggest an open horizon and options, or choices -- except in two notable shots, both at the very end. It can be assumed, however, that because she ends the movie with a side-to-side movement, that she has achieved a measure of freedom, or that she has refused to give up.

It's interesting to note that Mifune is cast as the first man in the movie, the catalyst for Oharu's troubles, and then never appears again. Mifune was already a worldwide star, having appeared in Rashomon two years earlier. Critic David Thomson asserts that Mizoguchi made this casting choice as a message: this would be a story of women, and not men. In Japan of 1952, that must have been a bold statement.

Mizoguchi is often considered one of the "big three" Japanese directors, the ones who took America by storm in the early 1950s after WWII was over. Akira Kurosawa is known and loved everywhere, mainly for his samurai films, and Yasujiro Ozu has a dedicated following among cineastes for his beautiful portraits of family dynamics. But Mizoguchi is harder to pin down, and his films have not been as widely available, save for Ugetsu (1953), which is known and loved for being both a samurai movie and a ghost story. Mainly he is considered a supreme teller of women's stories. (See also Sansho the Bailiff.)

Why should we care? Certainly The Life of Oharu is not easy to watch. It's absolutely depressing, but it's never cruel. And though it can be argued that its themes are very specific to Japan of the late 1600s, but issues of kindness are worthwhile anytime, any place.

The Criterion Collection has finally released this movie on DVD and Blu-ray for 2013. I have been looking for it since 1988, when I received a book of the 100 greatest films for Christmas and set about seeing every film on the list. This was my 99th: only one more to go. Extras on the Blu-ray include a partial commentary track by film scholar Dudley Andrew, as well as a video essay by Andrew. We also get The Travels of Kinuyo Tanaka, a 30-minute documentary from 2009 about the actor's 1949 goodwill tour of the United States. The liner notes booklet includes an essay by film scholar Gilberto Perez.

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