Director Kenji Mizoguchi’s “The Life of Oharu” (1952), newly available in a high-def digital restoration from the Criterion Collection, teems with contradictions. It’s epic yet delicate, set in feudal Japan but animated by modern anxieties, at once a traditional picaresque and a bold feminist classic.
These tensions emerge from the film’s first moments, as Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka), an aging prostitute, shields herself from the night chill. Against heavy shadows, Mizoguchi levies painterly backdrops — a brushstroke of clouds, distant dabs of garden — and even a bit of grim humor. Recounting her humiliation at the hands of an elderly sage earlier that night, Oharu remarks wryly that the man considered her “a lesson in karmic retribution.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. The extended flashback to Oharu’s past that comprises the majority of the film’s 136-minute running time is a series of unfortunate events, a downward cascade of indignities that Oharu resists but rarely instigates. To modern eyes, her crime — the hubris to assert woman’s will in a patriarchal society — seems a brave, failed gambit, a revolution of one.
Mizoguchi juxtaposes this bleak decline from noblewoman to beggar with gorgeous compositions, as if to say the gleam of prosperity is little more than gilding on shit. The symmetrical balance of two figures raking the already perfect grass in an ornate compound, or the layered choreography of strollers in a sunny park, belie the director’s disgust at Oharu’s society — and his own.
Refracted through period detail, “The Life of Oharu” examines the rapid modernization of postwar Japan with much the same ambivalence as Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” (1953). Where Ozu’s tender, regretful picture laments the disconnection wrought by this new world, Mizoguchi bears acid witness to its greed. A businessman bows at the pile of money a client pours on the floor; workers scramble, like ants to molasses, for stray coins; Oharu’s father positively salivates at the prospect of selling her into concubinage.
In this, the most apt comparison may be not to Ozu, nor to Akira Kurosawa, but to Douglas Sirk. In his near-contemporaneous Hollywood melodramas, Sirk played the beautiful artifice of conspicuous consumption against the ugly underside of the American Dream. And no less than Sirk’s opulent interiors and frothy, “three-hankie” plots, “The Life of Oharu” traverses intimate, ostensibly “feminine” terrain — love, marriage, childbirth, beauty — that masks its subversive political ends.
When a feudal lord sends his emissary to Oharu’s town to find him a concubine, the candidates line up for inspection like slabs of meat, prodded, ogled, judged, and tossed aside. In Mizoguchi’s critical assessment, easy money and cruel power make women’s bodies boom time commodities, purchased, possessed, and violated. “I’m not a beggar,” Oharu says, refusing to demean herself for a quick payday. “You’re bought and paid for,” her boss replies coldly. “You’re no different from a fish on the chopping board.”
Indeed, “The Life of Oharu” musters an array of female characters — an esteemed lady passed over for a concubine, an ill woman envious of a more beautiful courtesan, an out-of-luck musician, a fretful mother — all of them more or less subjugated to the desires of men. If Oharu must confront Lady Matsudaira’s penetrating stare, the noblewoman must accept the presence of another woman in her marriage “for the sake of the clan”; if Oharu may celebrate the lord’s delight at the birth of an heir, the lady may remove the child to nurse it.
These opposing forces, these contradictions, crystallize in the midst of their first encounter. Though the exchange is silent, the audible words of the theatrical performance proceeding off-screen expose the space between the imagined ease of womanhood (“By good fortune / She is given / To the imperial palace / What a lucky flower”) and the darker complexion of the actual experience:
Can this be real?
It is her fate
In the shade.
As it turns out, the only lesson about karmic retribution in this bitter masterpiece is Mizoguchi’s own. In the life — no, the world — of Oharu, it is the women who bear the pain, and the men who inflict it.
“The Life of Oharu” is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.