The Story of Oharu is a treatise on how women are economically exploited in a patriarchal society. This is probably one of the greatest ‘women’s films’ ever made. In a simple,understated way, the film outlines the tyrannies that made happiness almost impossible for women, not only in feudal Japan, but all over the world. It comments on the use of women’s bodies as sex objects and baby-making machines, with no regard for women’s minds or feelings. Conversely, the brief, almost unrecognizable appearance of Toshiro Mifune (albeit in a pivotal role) marked his only stint in a Mizoguchi film. While its very subject matter makes it perhaps less immediately appealing than the Japanese film-maker’s subsequent masterpieces, The Life of Oharu still emerges as an exceptional work in his distinguished canon.
Oharu’s emotional turmoil is brought vividly to life by Tanaka’s magnificent central performance – the actress herself was 42 at the time but, given Mizoguchi’s penchant for medium shots, she manages to convincingly get away with portraying a woman from the age of 18 through to 50 – as well as an excellent music score by Ichiro Saito. Despite a generally downbeat tone, the film is relieved occasionally by humorous passages (such as the fastidious specifications required in choosing the lord’s mistress and the ultra-servile attitude of the host at the brothel towards extravagant customers). The circular nature of the narrative is also evoked in visual terms: the film’s very opening sequence is re-enacted towards the end; besides, the image of a cat stealing off with the wig of the merchant’s wife is echoed by Oharu’s imitation of a growling feline when confronted by the scorns of her customers.
It even has a couple of humorous moments. If you doubt me, watch the scene where the jealous wife pesters her husband, trying to force him to admit that he first met Oharu at a brothel. The man is being shaved by his personal barber, and his wife keeps riding up on his side. So the husband lifts his mirror and walks a few spaces away, just to have his wife sidle up right against him again! The climax to this particular episode (the part with the cat, if you’re confused) is also quite humorous. Still, most of the film is heart-rending. It’s also amazingly directed by Mizoguchi. His camera movement is exquisite, absolutely exquisite. I loved Sansho the Bailiff, often said to be his best film, but the direction of Oharu is original and masterful. The acting is also wonderful.
What makes this film so tragic is that Oharu is completely innocent, falling victim to love that is beyond her control. Like all great tragedies we know what is to come, and it is the inability to stop it that drags the audience in. Mizoguchi’s beautifully composed a masterpiece here. A great film that has a well rounded set of characters that in any other episodic drama such as this may seem hollow. Mizoguchi handles each important moment in Oharu’s life with complete confidence and artistic control. There are also a number of comic scenes that help ease the depression and show that life is not always doom and glume. The film doesn’t preach or hammer home its point, it shows what happens and subtly gets its point across. One of the best films I have ever seen and a real treat for any film fan. Don’t let this one escape you, and I can only hope more of Mizoguchi’s films are released on these shores through Criterion.