The Life of Oharu: unsentimental historical drama of one woman’s downfall

Kenzo Mizoguchi, “The Life of Oharu”, Shintoho (1952)

This is an excellent film about a depressing subject: I only wish colour film had been available to director Kenzo Mizoguchi when he made this film so that he could have used it as an element in portraying the downfall of main character Oharu. The story could have been any other fictional historical sappy soap opera about a woman who through a series of incidents and plain bad luck is condemned to a life of ruin. Mizoguchi instead gracefully invests the film with pointed social commentary about the way women, even women of nobility, were treated in mediaeval Japan, drawing attention in particular to their lack of autonomy over their lives and their bodies.

It starts with Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) as a teenage daughter of a family on the brink of entering into the nobility, doing whatever young women of her class were supposed to do to make themselves attractive potential brides to the feudal lords; a page (Toshiro Mifune in an early role) of a lower social class is attracted to her and sneaks into her quarters but their affair is discovered by officials. The page is executed and Oharu and her family are banished into exile. Depressed, Oharu attempts suicide but, perhaps ironically given that she lives in a society that condoned self-murder in certain circumstances, this option is taken away from her. Instead she’s packed off as concubine to Lord Matsudaira to bear him and his infertile wife a son. Oharu does so but Lady Matsudaira, jealous of the lord’s attention to the young mother, dumps her back on her father with small compensation. In the meantime, Dad has racked up a sizeable debt in anticipation of great favours from the Matsudairas and Oharu is forced to work as a courtesan at a high-class brothel.

An incident in which a client is exposed as a fraud leads to her being thrown out and Oharu then goes to work for a couple. A series of incidents that revolve around the wife’s baldness and Oharu’s past leads to Oharu being dismissed from service. Then for once, Fate smiles on Oharu in the form of a fan-maker who agrees to marry her. Unfortunately Oharu’s husband is murdered by robbers while on a business trip. Needless to say, Oharu’s not entitled to any of the fan-maker’s estate so she attempts to join a nunnery. While training as a novice, Oharu’s past catches up with her again, resulting in her expulsion from the temple. All known options now exhausted, Oharu becomes a prostitute but not a successful one at that, descending lower and lower on the social scale of prostitutes as she ages and her beauty fades.

Next thing you know, salvation from a life of hardship and humiliation beckons but at a price: Lord Matsudaira has died and the new lord – Oharu’s son – offers sanctuary and an old age spent in comfort if she will agree to live under his restrictive conditions. Oharu is taken to his residence under heavy guard but, keen to see him, manages to evade all the soldiers and gets lost. As a result, sanctuary is withdrawn and Oharu becomes an itinerant beggar.

Mizoguchi presents Oharu’s life in a way that forces the audience to decide how much of Oharu’s ill luck is due to her fault or the fault of others who through foolishness, jealousy, lack of empathy or contempt close off her options and leave her with nowhere to go but down. There are occasions when Oharu is able to hit back hard at her oppressors, often to humorous effect, but while revenge can be sweet, her actions backfire on her and result in yet more degradation. Sometimes she’s very wilful and proud, and other times she is passive, too passive: the suggestion is that she defends herself when she shouldn’t and gives in when she should be assertive. You want to take her by the shoulders and shake her for some of the things she does and the scrapes she gets into: wouldn’t it be better, after all she has suffered, to take up her son’s offer, resign herself to his scolding and live in comfortable exile? Yet somehow I feel that by becoming a beggar, Oharu at last achieves something she never would have had if she had accepted the new lord’s sanctuary, remained a Buddhist nun or replaced Lady Matsudaira: the freedom to move around the country, to experience the changing face of nature, and to be her own person.

The elegant and understated way in which the film is made, with the use of long tracking shots that frame the individual at a distance from the camera, imbues it with a sense of the individual’s helplessness vis-a-vis an oppressive and unforgiving society that judges and punishes people harshly for even minor social blunders. Tanaka as Oharu moves gracefully as though in a Noh play, emphasising the character’s ability to cope with her misfortune and put up with the money-grubbing, status-obsessed people around her. We see the honest, natural beauty of her soul which contrasts strongly with the corrupted and rigid patriarchal society in which she has to live and suffer. It’s all the more gut-wrenching then to see how people, men and women alike, and secular and religious as well, use their social status, even when it is declining, to heap opprobrium and indignity on this woman. At the same time, one can’t help but think that her soul becomes more refined and unearthly the more the dirt is dished out on her; in her very early scenes with the page, Oharu treats him with disdain due to his lower social position so it’s obvious if her life had turned out differently, she would have been a coarser person.

It could have been a much better film with the use of colour but Mizoguchi was working on a small budget at the time he made the movie. I can imagine Mizoguchi using different shades of various colours to emphasise Oharu’s downfall so bright clean colours might have been used early on and paler or dirtier colours used later in the film. The settings and backgrounds could then have become more important as indicators of mood or to indicate a critical moment in the film. As the film’s pace is steady and unhurried throughout, some viewers are likely to find it slow and a bit boring, and the use of colour would have allowed those viewers to take in more of film’s backgrounds and take less notice of the pacing.

Anyone who thinks that life in Japan was better than it is now for most people should be directed to see this film – in its unassuming way, “The Life of Oharu” effectively demonstrates how very brutal and inhuman society was to women and other vulnerable people who through no fault of their own found themselves destitute and at the mercy of others.

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