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Criterion continues with its presentation of the top film classics by Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi. Although we're told that almost all of Mizoguchi's silent film work is lost, in the 1950s he produced a solid series of greatly admired pictures like Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff and Street of Shame. His absorbing 1952 drama The Life of Oharu is an epic protest against the plight of women in a strictly classed society. Although the action takes place in the 1600s the same barriers to happiness remain in many cultures. Mizoguchi's films often defended the honor and goodness of women objectified and devalued by cruel social rules. Eclipse has already released a collection of his powerful "fallen women"- themed movies.
Oharu stars Mizoguchi's favorite actress Kinuyo Tanaka, referred to in the publicity as "the Bette Davis of Japan". That's a good comparison, as Tanaka is first seen playing a 17-year-old, even though she was over forty at the time. The prestige production was one of several Mizoguchi pictures sent to compete at the Venice Film Festival.
Noble-born daughter Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) is pursued by many men at court, but breaks protocol to have an affair with Katsunosuke (Toshiro Mifune), a minor retainer beneath her station. When their crime is discovered Katsunosuke pays a terrible penalty while Oharu and her parents Tomo and Shinzaemon (Tsukie Matsuura & Ichiro Sugai) are banished from Kyoto. Father wants Oharu to hire out as a kept woman, but she resists. Salvation comes when a high Lord needs a concubine to provide him with the son his wife cannot give him. Pressured to accept, Oharu is despised by the wife and bears a son. Just when it looks as if the future is secure and happiness is possible, Oharu is separated from her baby and sent back home. The years to come are full of heartbreak and misery. A job as a maidservant falls apart when her Oharu's past is revealed, and another attempt at a fresh new beginning falls apart as well. Oharu is always the one shoved aside and given the blame. She falls ever lower in station, until the day comes that messengers arrive to conduct her back to Kyoto: her grown son, the new Lord, has decided that her place is in the palace. Will Oharu finally find peace and love?
Kenji Mizoguchi has been called the first feminist director, a name that seems more than appropriate. The Life of Oharu has scenes that may remind American viewers of "women's weepie" dramas, but only up to a point. Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas, must watch from afar as her daughter is married. Stella doesn't want her own socially unacceptable status to ruin her daughter's life too. In Mizoguchi's film Oharu catches a glimpse of her son, now a royal heir, on the road. She cannot approach him. The same scenario is repeated in a far more traumatic fashion years later when the son has grown to manhood.
Oharu's unforgivable sin is placing love ahead of societal obligation. Actually, affairs of the heart appear to have no place at all in the feudal system. Oharu's one true lover meets a terrible end. Her father treats her as a negotiable asset, blaming her for his poor money decisions and expecting her to use her beauty and her body to support the family. He eventually sells her into prostitution.
Domestic politics ruin the crooked deal by which Oharu becomes a concubine to produce a royal heir. Almost as in Cinderella, the envoy charged with finding an acceptable mate auditions dozens of women offered for sale. Only Oharu is the right age, with a correctly shaped face, proportioned features, and spotless complexion. But from that point forward Oharu either doesn't fit in, or her tainted past ruins everything, repeatedly. Plain bad luck ends one hopeful marriage. Men steal to provide for her, which only brings more trouble. She's finally reduced to begging, and then joining two other over-aged prostitutes eking out a living in the shadow of a city gate.
Mizoguchi's shooting style is the equal of any Western director. The pace is fairly slow but never static. He frequently covers entire scenes in a single complex dolly shot, yet moves the camera unobtrusively. His handsome compositions are never mannered or beautiful for their own sake. Mizoguchi often keeps his distance, or observes action from a high angle, rather than place Oharu's emotions front and center at all times. The result is that we think of the context of her situation, not just her immediate emotional trauma. The camera weaves between trees to follow Oharu as she runs and stumbles into a forest, but it doesn't move in for "the big close-up."
Actress Kinuyo Tanaka carries the difficult role with ease. Oharu cannot resist the impassioned appeals of Katsunosuke, for behind all of her 'dignified' behavior, she feels just the same as he does. Viewers may be surprised not to immediately recognize actor Toshiro Mifune. His partly shaved hair radically changes the shape of his face, and his love-struck character is nothing like the unkempt rogue of Seven Samurai. This is an "Amour Fou" story with a more realistic finish -- real people rarely get a poetic exit with a glamorous double suicide, etc.. The extras on Criterion's disc tell us that the original Saikaku Ihara novel used dark humor and bawdy detail in telling the story of Oharu's fall. Mizoguchi prefers the form of a humanist tragedy.
Criterion's Blu-ray of The Life of Oharu is a meticulous clean-up job on a title that clearly had some restoration issues. The images are rich and expressive, with the only flaws still showing through being a few scratches and quality shifts across matched cuts to optical dupes. The opening Toho logo is especially vibrant.
The soundtrack is often silent, which only makes the source-music songs stand out more strongly. Ichiro Sato's music takes a cue from Buddhist chanting and adds some effective choral effects. Mizoguchi also gives us a glimpse of an interesting Bunraku puppet performance. The puppeteers manipulate the little human figurines while standing in plain sight of the audience. Mizoguchi used another puppet show to comment on his main story in his early drama Osaka Elegy.
Extras for vintage Japanese films are not easy to come by. Criterion's disc producer Jason Altman located a 2009 Japanese documentary about star Kinuyo Tanaka's 1949 promotional tour of Hawaii and the United States, concentrating on cities with large Japanese-American populations. Using a bounty of B&W news film and 16mm color home movies, we see Tanaka performing dances and scenes from her popular movies on stage, and meeting Hollywood stars during a tour of Los Angeles. Davis wears a kimono given as a gift, and tells the Japanese star, "I'm known as the Kinuyo Tanaka of America." The trip is billed as a goodwill tour to help Japan regain its position in the international community, which is a gracious way of lobbying for the American Occupation to be lifted.
Critic Dudley Andrew provides a partial commentary and hosts a visual essay on the film called Mizoguchi's Art and the Demimonde. He relates the director's style to the woodcuts of the famous woodcut artist Utamaro, whose art prints also concentrated on the roles of women in society. Criterion's insert booklet contains an informative essay by Gilberto Perez.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Life of Oharu Blu-ray rates:
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