The Life of Oharu – 1952

Director Kenji Mizoguchi
Screenplay Saikaku Ihara, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yoshikata Yoda
Starring Kinuyo Tanaka, Tsukie Matsuura, Ichirō Sugai, Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura

It’s easy to understand, for anyone of any social background on Earth, women have tread a different path. More often this has been the path of one in the background, or a second class citizen. No film prior to the advent of second wave feminism makes this more clear than Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu. The film, especially Kinuyo Tanaka’s performance in the lead, is a testament to endurance when the whole world seems to view your existence with a passing glance and no more thought.

Tanaka’s Oharu makes a decision, early in her life as a member of a court. Katsunosuke (Mifune) is a member of a lower class. Going against social norms, he seeks her affection. After early resistance, she relents, admitting her affection matches his.  This is the first and only time she will ever know romantic love.

One true moment

Once this love is discovered, they are forced apart. Katsunosuke meets the end of a blade, while the tragedy is just beginning for Oharu.

After she is prevented from killing herself, she is sold by her parents. She becomes a concubine for a local lord, and gives birth to his heir. She knew happiness for a second there, but the lord enjoyed her too much. She is sent back with virtually nothing to show for it after the child is born. This is not the last time she is sold.

The film is an exercise in suffering. For every time Oharu is placed in a position or role, she is never consulted. She is used and dispensed with almost from scene to scene. Most of the time she is blamed for the decisions others made for her, or the people that ruled her at the time.

It is tough to keep track of time through the middle of the film, but we understand she has grown older and more sad with each event. She tries to become a nun, but a man forces himself upon her. She is held responsible for this.

Late in life, she is bought by a man who compares her to a ghoulish cat, warning the men present that she is one to avoid. It’s a moment that brings the viewer to their knees in sadness.

Through the trials and misery of Oharu’s life, Tanaka maintains her dignity. The actress, in her 40’s at time of filming, looks stunning at 20. The makeup, and especially her brilliant portrayal through body language helps give the viewer a clear view of the suffering she endures, with nowhere to go for relief.

Mizoguchi, known for his support of the feminist movement, presents a confident and beautiful palette as a director. The scenery and cinematography is peerless. At this point in his career, he is roundly considered one of the finest filmmakers in the world. This film is an almost perfect example why.

My one complaint on the film is that it feels like tit for tat over the space of three hours. There doesn’t seem to be any room to breathe in the scenes, even though most of them are beautifully structured and shot. By the time we get midway through the second act, the viewer gets the feeling that the other shoe is going to drop within seconds of something good happening.

Still it’s a marvelous film, with an incredible lead performance by Tanaka. Like the best art, we learn something about humanity and the will to persevere. People caught up in process and daily ritual rarely take time to understand how their actions affect someone. Oharu takes each one of our sleights and pushes forward. She grabs tiny bits of happiness out of a lifetime of misery.

This is a film worth one’s time.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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