THE LIFE OF OHARU

Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. Japan. 1952.


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Londonís Renoir cinema is about to re-release (December 2003) The Life of Oharu, the 1952 breakthrough film for Western audiences of the Japanese master Kenji Mizoguchi.  This was the first of a string of masterpieces made by Mizoguchi in the last five years of his life, along with Ugetsu Monogatari, Sansho Dayu, and Chikamatsu Monogatari (which I have not seen). 

The genesis of The Life of Oharu is fascinating.  By 1951 Mizoguchi was drinking himself to death, but he was so upset by the international acclaim for Akira Kurosawaís Rashomon that he decided to give up drink, force himself to live for a few more years, and produce several masterpieces.  For Mizoguchi, Kurosawa was simply a young upstart.

The Life of Oharu is based on a 17th century comic novel about a woman who, by stages, falls down the social scale to end up as a prostitute.  Mizoguchi turns it into a serious and passionate attack on both the status of women and class distinctions in Japanese feudal times, and, by implication, in the 1950s also.  The great actress Kinuyo Tanaka gives an intensely moving performance as the high-born courtesan who, through a combination of male exploitation and sheer bad luck, ends up as a penniless (or yenless) beggar.  Second billing is given to Rashomon star Toshiro Mifune as the only fully sympathetic male character.  We donít, however, see much of him as he is executed 20 minutes into the film.

Mizoguchiís autocratic methods are legendary.  Filming mostly took place in a bombed-out park near a railway line, and each take had to be completed within 15 minutes before the next train passed (dubbing was unthinkable for the director).  An unexpected snowstorm meant that assistants spent several hours sweeping it all away, until Mizoguchi noticed a snow-capped mountain in the distance and abandoned the scene completely.  A near-replica of a temple garden was constructed even though the original was available had he wanted it.

Characterised by long takes, tracking shots, and virtually no close-ups, The Life of Oharu approaches formal perfection. The viewer, via the camera, is invited to observe the dramatic events from the middle distance.  There are some striking camera flourishes, such as following Oharuís despairing flight through the woods pursued by her mother, and the focussing on the bloody sword after Mifuneís execution.  As in all his great films, Mizoguchi puts everything into his final shot, here the view of the distant temple as the wretched woman slowly shuffles offscreen; the temple remains, he is saying, long after Oharu has gone.

Some of the novelís comic elements have been retained, such as the messenger inspecting the local beauties to see if they measure up to his lordís requirements for a concubine, the brothel customer loaded with money which turns out to be forged, and the woman whose wig is stolen by a cat.  The film is episodic, and is nearly all in flashback after the opening sequence of Oharu as a prostitute too old to ply her trade.

There is one feature about the film, however, which genuinely puzzles me; the Toshiro Mifune character.  To be quite frank, it looks nothing like him, except in a very early shot where his face is superimposed over that of a Buddha.  The character is too tall, he walks and talks quite differently from his roles in Kurosawaís great films (Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood), and his face is different also.  I have a theory that he had been lined up for the role in Oharu but had to be substituted for at the last moment, and none of the reference books have picked this up.  If anyone can enlighten me, I would be most grateful.  Perhaps this will also be an incentive for others to see, or re-view, this splendid film to see whether they agree.

Alan Pavelin

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