Kenji Mizoguchi is one member of Japan’s grand cinematic triumvirate—the others, of course, being Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu. There seems to be an unwritten rule that if you mention one of them in a review you have to mention the others. I’m not sure why, exactly; though they hail from the same country, each man’s approach to cinema is markedly different. Ozu is known for his understated, unaffected, naturalistic dramas. Kurosawa is known for his grandiose, almost Hollywood-like films, usually cutting deep into his characters’ psychology. Mizoguchi may be somewhere in the middle, crafting psychologically naturalistic films in a dreamy, poetic mood recalling some of the best of Renoir. His Ugetsu Monogatari and Sanshō Dayū are among the greatest films ever made.
The Life of Oharu comes with the same pedigree. I mean, apart from being a Mizoguchi joint, the film received the Great Movie treatment from Roger Ebert. ‘Here is the saddest film I have ever seen about the life of a woman’ Ebert begins his review, which is saying something. Mizoguchi made plenty of films about women, often focusing on how they had to navigate through a society of men, and the hardships they endured along the way. You maybe could call some of his work proto-feminist, if you wished to put too fine a point on it.
Being in the same mould, The Life of Oharu follows the tribulations of a woman in a male-dominated culture. One woman specifically: Oharu. (Duh.) Near the beginning of the film, her family is exiled, and her father has racked up quite a depressing debt. First, her family sells her to be a rich lord’s mistress, with the understanding that she will father a son for him. Though she manages this feat, the lord sends her back home, her duty fulfilled. Her life becomes a series of unfortunate events, as she becomes a courtesan, a maid, a happy wife, a sad widow, a trainee nun, and eventually a prostitute.
All these episodes in Oharu’s life have the faint whiff of cliché about them. The episodic nature of the narrative makes the whole affair seem quite soap opera-like. This is in marked contrast to Ebert, who closes his aforementioned essay, ‘Years before the rise of feminism in the West, the great directors of Japan were obsessed with the lives of women in their society. No woman in a Japanese film that I have seen is more tragic and unforgettable than Oharu.’
To me, however, any impact the film might have had in its feminist themes is blunted by a fatal structural defect. I started my synopsis by saying that Oharu’s family had been exiled. Well, the reason for this is her passionate love affair with a lowly peasant page named Katsunosuke, played by a young Toshirō Mifune. Their class difference is so egregious that, though Oharu faces exile, his punishment is quite different. He dies, you see—via beheading. (This isn’t really a spoiler, as it happens in the first reel of the film.) It seems there was something worse than being a woman back then: a peasant boy of no rank.
Look, I’m not saying that Katsunosuke’s death abrogates Oharu’s struggles. Well, she’s a fictional character, so in terms of the film’s theme… okay, yeah, it kinda does, actually. As Oharu gets passed around, sold into concubinage, into servitude, and into prostitution, I kept thinking, ‘yes, but…’ It sounds a little flip to say that Oharu ‘gets’ to do these things, but, not being dead, she is able to have a life. Her life is surely difficult, but not, as dramatised by Mizoguchi, worse than death. After all, the film is called The Life of Oharu, and is well over two hours long. The Life of Katsunosuke would be a fifteen minute short subject. Poor him.
I’ve considered the possibility that it was Mizoguchi’s intention to say something about class instead of only something about the plight of women, but after a couple moments’ reflection I don’t buy this. As it happens right at the beginning of the film, the point is made. But then the whole thing goes on for a further two hours. The death of Katsunosuke is a black cloud that casts a shadow over the rest of the movie. Perhaps it would have been better told at the end, in flashback? Or dispensed with altogether? I’m not sure. But its pall makes what follows a bit melodramatic and, if I’m honest, boring in places.
Hey, they can’t all be winners. This is the weakest Mizoguchi film I’ve seen and at worst it’s average. He’s still got a pretty good track record. Bottom Line: The Life of Oharu is a Deep Cut for Mizoguchi completists; beginners should start with Ugetsu or Sansho.
The Life of Oharu is currently streaming on FilmStruck.