Life of Oharu (1952)

3 03 2008

It’s impossible, at this point, to read about Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu and not see some reference to the title character’s bleak life. That’s because, her suffering is the movie. I’m not one to argue in favor of optimism but this is just ridiculous. At first, it seems as though the film is going to simplybe very dreary but the misfortunes begin to pile up to the point where they lose any possible repercussion. A recent Mizoguchi devotee, I’m disappointed to see that his most critical lauded work is not completely representative of his true talents. In all honesty, this feels just a streamlined version of some of his best films, or perhaps more harshly, an okay imitation by someone misunderstanding his work. It makes sense that this was his dream project because it shows all the faults of the self-indulgent excess that only slightly taints his better films. This said, Oharu is indeed a great film. As over-the-top as it’s “tragedy” is intended to be, the graceful acting of the great Kinuyo Tanaka shines and for what it’s worth, this may be Mizoguchi’s most technically accomplished work.

Oharu opens with a startling long and elegant tracking shots. The location looks post-apocalyptic but Mizoguchi guides us through the ruins of the city. Oharu is old and to be frank, ugly but like the setting, there’s a poetic grace in her face. She enters a temple and begins to recall the tragedy leading up to the bleak point. We see her at a much younger age falling for a low-ranking page named Katsunosuke but eventually, their affair is uncovered. While he is executed, Oharu and her parents are sent into exile. Lord Matsudaira must find a new concubine and his attendant chooses Oharu. She is reluctant to go, but her parents (particularly her father) encourage her to go, in atonement for her affair. She makes an impression on Lord Mastudaira and she bears his child, but he’s spending too much time with her. She is sent back with her parents, who respond by selling her to a geisha house.

At this point in the narrative, I was absorbed by the film (to say the least) and despite it’s obvious overtly bleak outlook, seemed like the masterpiece it was cracked out to be. Extremly melodramatic/tragic events like this continue to reoccur, though, for another hour. The turning point for me is when Oharu marries a fan-maker, things begin to look good, but of course, he dies. He dies within fifteen minutes of his screen time. This is where the film becomes incredibly frustrating. Mizoguchi’s compassion for Oharu is deep, but he loses all focus on the world around her. People become mere props to make her life worse and worse. It’s almost as though the film is a series of the most pessimistic vignettes ever made. In fact, I’d like the film more if that were the case. Mizoguchi’s stylistic grace is apparent in every scene, but Oharu’s misfortunes are so dramatic. In fact, it’s desensitizing to the point where deaths just seem silly.

Perhaps the reason the film seems so bleak is because there are not enough “light” moments. The film just continues to spiral downwards into an abyss of despair. By far my favorite moments in the film are the most poignant ones: early on when Oharu jokes around with her prostitute pals and later on, when she gets the pilgrims to laugh. These are scenes that really are sad, to me at least. They definitely have the most emotional value and there’s not an ounce of superficial tragedy present. It’s the tragedy of the slight smile that shines from Tanaka’s otherwise shattered face that is truly heartbreaking. These moments are fleeting, but that’s why they are so great. The moments that pile onto Oharu’s laundry list of disappointment are only sad in a Hollywood way but thankfully Mizoguchi is smart enough to see that he couldn’t make his film completely depressing, though he certainly tried.

At the same time, I also want to pronounce this as one of the best movies ever. As mentioned earlier, this is one of Mizoguchi’s most technically established films – laying almost every technique he used in his career. The elegant tracking shots of his films made in 50s lead us into distant static shots found in his social dramas of the 30s. Must I even mention the cinematography? Calling it the most aestichally evolved film of all time is a bit much, but it’s probably the single most innovative film in Mizoguchi’s entire body of work. To continue on with positives, this does indeed boast amazing performances. I really can’t say enough about Tanaka here. I’ll just leave at this: she does everything right.

I guess…I totally love this film. Yes, it has a lot of problems in it’s dramatic thrust but it encompasses so much beauty underneath it’s bleak mask. Calling this “self-indulgent” would be an understatement: this is Mizoguchi putting himself on celluloid. The problems that plague his other films are magnified here, sure, but so are all the things that are great about him. In the end, it’s one of the most frustrating cinematic experiences I’ve encountered but probably one of the most emotionally involving. I’m hesitant to declare it as a masterpiece, but it is a great film.



4 responses

3 03 2008

I had a similar reaction when I viewed it, but it’s definitely a film that gets better over time. I think what makes it so frustrating is how everything is so inevitable but there’s such a profound transcendent beauty throughout the film that I think it’ll work much better on rewatches.

4 03 2008
Michael Kerpan

This is one of my favorite Mizoguchi films. Yes, the parade of horribles seems like just a bit too much for poor O-Haru, but if one breaks this down into its constituent pieces, each segment is practically perfect. Perhaps this would never have worked without Tanaka at center stage — but she IS there, and pulls the whole thing together. When one remembers that Mizoguchi gave no more guidance to his performers than Naruse (except that M abused them if he didn’t like what they did, while N just quietly asked people to re-do an unsatisfactory take), Tanaka’s contribution is all the more remarkable.

4 03 2008
Jake Savage

Wasn’t he a bit more easy on Tanaka, though? In Shindo’s embarrassingly bad documentary (which I watched for the first time last night) he used that as more evidence that Mizoguchi was in love with her. Particularly unclassy on his part, I guess, but in any case, it doesn’t take away from her performance here.

4 03 2008
Michael Kerpan

Shindo’s Mizo documentary (and his script for Kon Ichikawa’s idiotic Tanaka film bio) caused me to boycott his films. I don’t like him at all. ;~}

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