Life of Oharu (Saikaku Ichidai Onna, 1952), writer-director Kenji Mizoguchi’s grim tale of a woman’s tragic fall in feudal Japanese society, is based on 17th century author Ihara Saikaku‘s sensational novel about an “amorous” woman and her varied experiences of that time. Although Mizoguchi faithfully set the film during that same period as the original novel, one still gets the feeling that he must have added his own interpretive touches to the narrative. But many of us regard Mizoguchi’s interpretive touches, not as unwarranted alterations, but as significant original contributions. And in his own country of Japan, Mizoguchi has always been regarded as one of its greatest filmmakers. However, it was only in 1952, just four years before his death, that Mizoguchi gained international recognition, when Life of Oharu won the International Prize at the Venice International Film Festival.
Mizoguchi is often identified with his films that are about and sympathetic to women, all the more so because he worked in a society that has been culturally restrictive for women. In fact a number of his earlier films that endure today, such as Osaka Elegy (Naniwa Erejî, 1936), Sisters of the Gion (Gion No Shimai, 1936), The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Zangiku Monogatari, 1939), Women of the Night (Yoru No Onnatachi, 1948), and The Lady of Musashino (Musashino Fujin, 1951), all have themes that are highly sympathetic to the disadvantaged situation of women in Japanese society. Life of Oharu continues this characteristic sympathy for the feminine circumstances, and yet there is also something different about this film, when compared to his earlier work about women. The style is not that of a crusader out to undo the wrongs of an unjust society. It does indeed expose those wrongs, but it is also more contemplative – almost a brooding piece about the more general and tragic aspects of human existence. Possibly linked to this distinction is the fact that, according to my understanding, Mizoguchi converted to Buddhism around this time, and that co
nversion may account for the subtleties of expression that appear in Life of Oharu. In any case it seems that Mizoguchi’s evolving sentiments at this time blended well with his customarily masterful mise-en-scène, which characteristically featured artful moving camera work that was combined with carefully choreographed character movements so as to maintain fluid but balanced compositions throughout the lengthy shots. This technique could effectively generate narrative scene changes even within a single shot, thereby obviating the need for a visual cut. Most of the time, his shot compositions are in long shot or medium shot, so that the environmental “architecture” of the surrounding space contributes to the emotional context of any given scene. In addition the narrative setting of past, “fabled” times seemed to be more suited to his form of cinematic expression, which happily made Life of Oharu an excellent theme for Mizoguchi’s cinematic poetry.
Oharu, herself, was played by Kinuyo Tanaka, who gave a nuanced performance. No longer youthful, at 42, she had to play a role that was necessarily constrained with respect to the allowable range of gestures and expressions, and she had to portray convincingly a suffering personality that spans from a seventeen-year-old girl to a fifty-year-old woman. She had already starred in Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night (1948) and The Lady of Musashino (1951), and she would also subsequently appear in his Ugetsu, (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954). Note that her early romantic love is played by Toshiro Mifune, whose brief, controlled performance was commendably restrained by Mizoguchi.
The story of Life of Oharu does not follow the conventional four- or five-act structuring often present in feature films. Here the narrative has about ten sections of quite varying length, with each one depicting the dispiriting downward spiral of Oharu’s circumstances over a period of about thirty-five years. After starting out in the “present” in section 1 (about three hundred years ago), much of the film, comprising sections 2 through 9, represents the extended reminiscences of Oharu’s past, after which section 10 picks up with the narrative that had begun in section 1.
1. At the Temple. In the opening sequence, Oharu is a fifty-year-old prostitute walking on the street. Attracted to the sound of some religious chanting, she wanders into a temple and stares at one of the many Buddha idols, whose likeness reminds her of someone. Then she lapses into her memories of long ago.Those people looking for a soaring tribute to feminism, or a hard-hitting condemnation of social injustice towards women, will ultimately be disappointed with Life of Oharu. Seen from such a point of view, the film would only be seen as an unrelenting and enervating sequence of defeats and disasters for Oharu. Though there is some portrayal of encrusted Japanese prejudices, the film has a more inward-looking glance, and its strengths lie in that direction. None of the men in the film, by the way, not even Jihei, is particularly evil, although, as in all of Mizoguchi’s films, they are invariably selfish and unprincipled. In fact there is something human about them, and we can recognize their moral frailty as common in society (and to a certain extent in ourselves, too). And it is not just men who mistreat Oharu; many of the women in her life, concerned as they are with their own troubles, cause further problems for Oharu. Her mother seems roughly to agree with her father’s dismissive attitude. Lord Matsudaira’s jealous wife is Oharu’s enemy. Jihei’s wife, too, becomes her enemy. And the Buddhist nun has no sympathy for her whatsoever. So we can't just say that the film simply depicts men oppressing women. No, the film has a wider perspective than that.
2. Samurai’s Daughter. Oharu is the teenage daughter of a samurai serving in the Imperial Court. But despite this rather exalted status, social customs severely restrict her activities, and she is apparently is not normally allowed out, other than to go to the temple. On one such occasion, though, she meets Katunosuke (played by Toshiro Mifune), a lowly page who is enamored of Oharu. He comes to a hostel room where Oharu is resting and pleads his case, asking to marry her. At first she coldly dismisses him, but eventually, in an exquisite two-minute tracking shot, she admits that she does love him, but that their differing social statuses prevent them from being together. There is then a cut to a scene some hours later, in which the police barge in upon the two lovers and catch them red-handed. A subsequent court hearing (explicitly dated November 7, 1686) reveals that in punishment for this breach of class barriers within the Imperial Court, both Oharu and her parents are to thereby dismissed from their positions and banished from the city of Kyoto. Meanwhile Katunoske suffers a worse punishment: he is beheaded. His last message to Oharu before he dies is that she should go ahead and find someone else to marry, but that she should only marry for love.
Upon learning of Katunosuke’s execution, a superb 70-second shot shows Oharu running out of the house to kill herself, only to be barely prevented from doing so by her mother. This is the first of many situation in which Oharu’s life is crushed because she has followed her heart.
3. With the Daimyo in Edo. A messenger from the court at Edo comes to the Kyoto area looking for a mistress for the high-ranking daimyo, Lord Matsudaira, whose wife is apparently unable to bear children. In an ornate 2:25 tracking shot, he examines all of the most beautiful girls from Kyoto that have been assembled for his inspection, but none of them is good enough for the lord’s demanding requirements. Later and by chance, the messenger sees Oharu performing a dance and, of course, she is selected as the perfect young women for the daimyo. However Oharu, in another intricate 2:20 shot, resists becoming a concubine, citing Katunoske’s last request, but she is forced to submit anyway.
After settling in at Edo, Oharu delivers what was demanded – she gives birth to a male heir for Lord Matsudaira. But the courtiers and members of the Matsudaira clan become concerned that the lord’s amorous passions for Oharu are sapping his energy, and they decide to send her quickly back home to poverty in Kyoto. Once again, love proves to be Oharu’s undoing.
4. A Coutesan in Shimabara. Oharu’s father, having overly estimated the wealth he could make from Oharu’s concubinage, now sells his daughter as a courtesan to the Shimabara geisha locale in order to repay his debts. But later Oharu, not wanting to be treated like a sex object, rejects the vulgar attentions of a rude patron, and she is fired from the geisha house and sent home again, much to the consternation of her unsupportive parents.
5. With the Merchant Jihei. Oharu now secures a position working as a maid for a rich merchant, Jihei. Her beauty immediately attracts the amorous attentions of a fellow-servant, a jovial rascal named Bunkichi; but Oharu keeps him at a distance. In the meantime Jihei’s wife becomes friendly with Oharu and timidly reveals to her a big secret: a recent illness has left the wife bald, and, fearing that her husband will abandon her if he finds out, she now wears a wig to cover her baldness. Soon, however, the merchant family learns of Oharu’s notorious past as a Shimabara courtesan, which has two differing effects: Jihei becomes attracted to Oharu, while his wife becomes jealous. Finally, Jihei forces Oharu to have sex with him, and, in a responsive act of vengeance, Oharu gets a family cat to steal the wife’s wig, revealing the woman’s secret to her husband. But Oharu’s act of independence only succeeds in her getting kicked out of the household.
6. Marriage. While sections 2-5 have been relatively lengthy, each lasting some 10-20 minutes, sections 6-9 are much shorter, as Oharu’s degenerating circumstances gather pace. Oharu is at this point working for a lesser family and in poorer circumstances, but now she is approached by a gentle, timid fan-maker who asks her hand in marriage. She accepts, and for once, she is happy and busily helping her new husband in his fan shop. But the happiness is short-lived, and soon her husband is killed by a thief, leaving Oharu penniless. This time it is cruel fate that has defeated her.
7. A Buddhist Nun. Now despairing of ever achieving happiness in this material world, Oharu decides to become a Buddhist nun and work in the temple. But Bunkichi, still seeking Oharu’s affection, loans her a kimono from Jihei’s shop. When Jihei learns of this, he goes to the temple to demand the return of the kimono, treating Oharu like a whore. But just as in Shimabara, Oharu stands up to such rudeness; she strips off the kimono she is wearing and throws it at Jihei. Jihei, aroused by such boldness, forces himself sexually on Oharu, and when they are discovered by the head nun, Oharu is kicked out of the temple. It is clear that for this head nun, the Buddhist principles of compassion have strict limits.
8. With Bunkichi. Now on the street and further reduced in social status, Oharu runs into Bunkichi, who has also been recently fired by Jihei. Bunkichi promises that he will look after Oharu (with some money that he has just stolen from Jihei), but soon he is discovered by Jihei and his men and dragged off, presumably to be killed. Oharu is left alone and with no resources.
9. Further Decline. Many years have apparently passed. Oharu is now completely destitute and reduced to being a beggar, playing a lute by a gate. She happens to see an elegant procession pass by, carrying the palanquin of Lord Matsudaira’s son, Oharu’s own child. When the palanquin door is briefly opened, Oharu has a momentary opportunity to see her son, who is now apparently in his teens. This heart-rending experience of separation shatters Oharu, and she collapses in tears and faints to the ground. Two passing prostitutes find her and convince her that she should join them rather than starve to death.
Later, now working as a prostitute, Oharu is summoned by a man to his quarters. She is shocked to learn that the man doesn’t want sex from her, but is actually a religious pilgrim who only wants to display her to his fellow pilgrims as an example of the depths to which temptation can force the weak-minded to sink. To them she is a symbol of sin and a real-life witch. Oharu snarls at them sarcastically, mocking their belief in witchery – she still knows who she really is, inside. This spectacular shot, lasting four minutes, is one of the best dramatic moments in the film and features superb acting by Kinuyo Tanaka.
10. Back to the Present. The opening shot of the film is now repeated, and Oharu is again seen contemplating the holy idols (all males, of course) in the Buddhist temple. Then she collapses to the floor, and her fellow prostitutes carry her back to their quarters. There her mother, who has long been looking for her, finds her and informs her that Lord Matsudaira has died and that her son, the new Lord Matsudaira, wants her to come and live in his palace. But when she goes to Edo, the Matsudaira clan members, alarmed over Oharu’s notorious past life, forbid her to live in the palace and condemn her to anonymous exile as a prisoner on the palace grounds. She is granted one final chance to see the young lord in secret as he walks by in a procession, and the two shots depicting this scene are superbly choreographed – a highlight of the film, as they contrast the artificial role-playing pomp of the lord with the authentic humanity of Oharu. Afterwards, however, the clan soon learns that Oharu has slipped through their guard and escaped. In the final scene Oharu is seen walking outside somewhere in the evening from house to house, humbly singing hymns and seeking alms. She is still unbowed, but resigned and egoless.
How is one such as Oharu to deal with all these vicissitudes? Japan had recently gone through an incredibly catastrophic and destructive period – millions of their own people killed and the country completely defeated. It was not enough simply to blame some people or forces; the whole world had to be called into question. What kind of cosmic answers are there in the face of such suffering? For many years after the close of the war, Japanese culture was obsessed with how to come to grips with what had happened. Life of Oharu was one such response, and it took inspiration, I believe, from Buddha’s original insight. Attachment entails suffering.
Throughout all her travails, Oharu is not outwardly defiant, but she retains a certain inward authenticity. She holds onto and never loses certain convictions that she knows are innately right: that Japan must someday recognize the rights of people to marry for love; that the natural birth-mother of a child has a certain inalienable affinity with that child; that a woman should not be treated as an animal. It is this unwavering authenticity that makes us see almost a Bodhisattva at the end of the film. She still treats people with the compassion that is due every sentient being. In this material world, she has been denied any reward, but inwardly Oharu has attained something else.