February 20, 2013

The Life of Oharu (1952)
Grade: 57/100

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Stars: Kinuyo Tanka, Toshirô Mifune, Ichirô Sugai

What it's about. Set in Japan during the 17th century. Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) is an unmarried young beauty in a privileged family, which includes her caring mother Tsukie Matsuura and her mercenary-minded father, Ichirô Sugai. Oharu's future is promising, but she ruins it by having an affair with Katsunosuke (Toshirô Mifune in a surprisingly minor role), a lowly servant.

Katsunosuke is executed, and Oharu's family is exiled. Their lot improves, however, when an envoy from Lord Matsudaira selects Oharu as his master's concubine, to bear his heir. She fulfills this task, but alas, Matsudaira's barren wife is jealous and has Oharu outcast. She returns to her parents, but her indebted father sells her as a courtesan, which is apparently an entertainer at a house of prostitution. She is fired when she refuses the advances of a forger (Eijirô Yanagi), then agrees to sleep with him anyway.

Oharu has an uptick in fortune when she marries fan maker Yakichi (Jûkichi Uno). Because it is a movie, Yakichi is promptly murdered in a robbery. Oharu then tries to become a nun, but this also ends badly when she is sexually assaulted by Kahei (Eitarô Shindô), who knew her as a courtesan. She then runs off with the thief Bunkichi (Hiroshi Oizumi) but is left with nothing upon his inevitable arrest.

Oharu now has no choice but to become a prostitute. Life becomes harder as she reaches middle age and can no longer entice clients. Eventually, her son, now grown and the Lord Matsudaira, decides to bring her to his court. But once there, she learns she is to be held as a prisoner because of her sordid past.

How others will see it. Director Mizoguchi was little known in the West until The Life of Oharu won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 1952. Since then, Mizoguchi's star has only risen, despite his untimely death in 1956. Some consider him the best of all directors, Japanese or otherwise.

As for the Life of Oharu, it has an extremely high user rating of 8.1 at imdb.com. However, the vote total is low at 2K, and the ratings drop with advancing age. Among women over 45, half of all voters grade the movie one out of ten, the lowest possible grade, a rejection of Oharu's character development and depressing fate.

How I felt about it. The Life of Oharu is the fourth Mizoguchi film that I have seen. The others are Sansho the Bailiff, Ugetsu, and The 47 Ronin. I graded all four movies between 53 and 57, indicating that they are highly competent but not quite good. Mizoguchi is a capable story teller, and we identify with the plight of his characters. But I don't see the greatness typically given to these movies.

Sure, we feel sorry for our heroine. She has been used and mistreated. There's a lesson here somewhere. Something like, mind your station. Or, don't judge others. Or, women deserve better. Or, don't grow old. But while Mizoguchi is expert at showing humiliation and injustice, there are other experiences in the human spectrum. There's no doubt that Ozu is better, and Kurosawa is much better, at making movies.

How could The Life of Oharu be improved? Perhaps Oharu could have shown some backbone throughout. When she's not a doormat, she's a pushover. She could use a sharp tongue, and when silence is better, say nothing at all. Here, every man who wants her, gets her, whether he is Lord Matsudaira or the thief Bunkichi. Since she has no standards, no wonder she ends up as a prostitute. A leaf blown by the wind down the street will end up in the gutter.

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