Nobody suffers like Oharu
The first time I went to see Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu, I asked a friend who was familiar with the film to come with me. Although a self-proclaimed “Mizoguchi freak,” he demurred, saying somewhat ominously, “Nobody suffers like Oharu!” After watching the film, I could see why he didn’t want to go. Oharu (1952) is a tragedy with few peers in or out of the cinema; it’s 137 minutes of almost unrelieved grimness, made unsettlingly real by the director’s ravishing pictorialism and above all by the performance of Kinuyo Tanaka as a woman who falls from a respected member of the Imperial Japanese Court to a broken-down whore and beggar ravaged by disease.
According to his longtime screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda, Mizoguchi made Oharu as a reaction to Kurosawa’s triumph with Rashomon at the Venice Film Festival a year earlier. But the production must have been inevitable given Mizoguchi’s fascination with Japanese history, his obsession with the plight of women, and the neat dovetailing of these two elements in the popular 17th-century novel on which the film is based. (In fact, the director had the project in mind at least two years earlier, when he left Shochiku studios after they refused to finance it.)
Told in the form of a flashback, the film opens with a burned-out Oharu, at age 50, in a Buddhist temple, where she imagines the face of her lover of years earlier, Katsunosuke (a young, hunky Toshiro Mifune). Mizoguchi quickly plunges us into the heart of the drama; suddenly it’s thirty years earlier, and beautiful naïf Oharu is being courted by a man she dismissively calls “a mere page” – Katsunosuke. Pledged to one of the lords, she nonetheless goes off with Katsunosuke when she realizes his love is sincere. The two are discovered and ruthlessly punished – he is beheaded, and she and her family are exiled.
Oharu’s refusal to live outside her own moral code, her inability to compromise by following feudal custom that demands total submission from women, is her undoing from the start, and repeats itself in a series of wrenching sequences that see her steadily, systematically decline. After attempting suicide, she’s sold by her father to a powerful clan and bears their leader a son. The leader’s jealous wife has her exiled again. From there she becomes a courtesan, where her lack of enthusiasm for a client’s money triggers her dismissal. Then she’s adopted by a merchant and his family, but in spite of her kindness to them, she’s sexually harassed by the husband and assaulted by the wife. Next, she marries a good man, a fan maker, but he’s abruptly killed, leaving Oharu alone and destitute. Seeking refuge in a convent, she’s accosted by the merchant, forced into sex, then discovered and cast out. She winds up in one of the director’s most favored cinematic environments: a whorehouse.
Mizoguchi’s familiarity with such places through extensive personal patronage is well known, and goes far in explaining his ability to detail the lives of one of Japan’s most cast-off classes. It’s only from the other prostitutes that Oharu can gain some measure of sympathy and understanding. Because they live outside the social strictures of feudalism, and lack any kind of material or personal power, they can afford to be generous. But Oharu’s degradation continues when a man hires the now decrepit whore; he turns out to be a pilgrim who brings her to a group of acolytes for the purpose of ridicule and moral instruction. He refers to her as “the witch” and points her out as the inevitable dire result of a life of sin.
Oharu’s status as a helpless submissive to a malevolent world of men is everywhere evident, but perhaps most subtly symbolized during an entertainment where a small Oharu-like hand puppet is manipulated and made to “act” for the amusement of the audience. Still, Oharu tries to assert her humanity and dignity throughout, and is especially powerful in this regard in a sequence where she’s allowed to view a young lord who is in reality her son, the product of her assignation years earlier with the clan leader. She breaks away from the men who stand between her and her son, and causes them to briefly rear back in awe when she invokes her deep connection with the boy: “I gave him life!” Her triumph is temporary, though; she ultimately fails to connect with her son, who passes indifferently before her eyes, and she disappears into the night. Mizoguchi shoots this and other such sequences in a kind of discreet, distancing style, with mostly long and medium shots and very few close-ups. This strategy builds to devastating emotional effect, with Oharu appearing frequently in a posture of physical or spiritual compromise – a small figure dwarfed by the landscape around her, her back to the camera or her face otherwise hidden, her body prone or prostrate as if brought low by the suffocating grid of her life.
It’s hard to know whether the film failed commercially in Japan because of the unalloyed bleakness of Oharu’s situation or the scorching critique of Japanese society. But worldwide audiences responded much more positively. Like Kurosawa, Mizoguchi won the best director award at Venice, and the film is now rightly ranked as one of cinema’s greatest achievements.