A work of mature mastery, sorrowful and self-possessed, The Life of Oharu (1952) introduced an international audience to the art of Kenji Mizoguchi. It is an art both attached to tradition and radically original.
The son of a roofing carpenter, Mizoguchi was born in Tokyo in 1898, during the Meiji period, when Japan gave up its isolationism and opened itself to modernization from the West—including, of course, the movies, a line of work Mizoguchi took up as a young man. Of the many films he directed in the 1920s and early 1930s, little survives. His two films from 1936, Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion, bitter portrayals of wronged women in contemporary Japan, were a breakthrough. By then he had developed his own unmistakable style, avoiding close-ups and reverse angles and favoring a distant, mobile camera and prolonged, choreographed takes. This style can be seen at its purest in The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939) and the two-part The 47 Ronin (1941–42).
A few years after the war, as if to confirm the opinion of critics who were calling him old-fashioned, Mizoguchi turned to classic Japanese literature for a series of films that, beginning with The Life of Oharu and continuing with Ugetsu (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954), would win him a top prize at Venice three years in a row and make his reputation in the West, which was then belatedly discovering the cinema of Japan. Some Japanese critics at the time objected to the liberties he took in adapting national classics. But that an artist can take liberties and still remain true to a tradition only attests to its vitality. As a national storyteller, Mizoguchi has few peers among filmmakers anywhere.
These celebrated 1950s films don’t adhere so strictly to the long-take technique Mizoguchi perfected in the late 1930s and early 1940s, are more amenable to cuts and closer views; but his distinctive style nevertheless abides. And it is consummately at play in The Life of Oharu, which opens with a camera movement that steadily follows from behind a woman walking in the dark outskirts of old Kyoto. She is our protagonist, Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka), and we follow her at the start as we are to follow her through the course of her life. She notices something offscreen and turns her veiled face away, and Mizoguchi’s camera, with characteristic tact, slows down and lets her recede, in felt deference to her diffidence. A woman and a man come into view, evidently a prostitute taking a customer to an inn; he tries to break away, but she seizes him and ushers him to the inn door. This prompts a cut closer to Oharu, herself a prostitute walking the streets—a striking cut, by about ninety degrees, to a lower angle on her other side. Mizoguchi compared his long takes, with the camera moving and pausing and moving again—poised to move even when pausing—to the traditional picture scrolls of Japanese art. If the easel paintings of the West are windows opening onto another world, picture scrolls are more like texts to be read. And if scrolls usually picture things from above, befitting the position of a reader at a table rather than a viewer at a window, in a similar way (as Noël Burch has noted) Mizoguchi often photographs things from a high angle. But no less often, he comes down to the ground, and movements of descent and ascent are characteristic gestures of his camera. And not only camera movements: cuts like that first one in The Life of Oharu will shift perspective from the lofty to the earthly, from the involved to the detached.
The Life of Oharu was adapted by the director and his regular scriptwriter, Yoshikata Yoda, from Saikaku’s The Life of an Amorous Woman, a novel from the seventeenth century related in the first person by an unnamed woman confessing to her numerous carnal sins, and thereby implicating a whole society. Though not the narrator, the film’s Oharu is seen from the start to be the prime mover of the story, the principal motivator of the camera’s movement. And though no saint either, she is a nobler and graver figure than the novel’s narrator, and one who more palpably suffers oppression and injustice at the hands of society. The novel is comedy, erotic and satirical and at times harsh; the film is melodrama, leavened with an incisive humor that yet does little to mitigate a mounting sadness.
Having introduced Oharu as an aging streetwalker, the film goes into an extended flashback when, at a temple housing many statues of Buddha’s disciples, she sees in one of these figures a resemblance to the love of her youth. A forbidden love: she was a lady at court and the man (Toshiro Mifune) was a lowly page. In Mizoguchi, as in Kurosawa—though not in Ozu or Naruse—the actors act with their whole bodies, in a gestural manner that owes much to the Japanese theatrical tradition. Look at Tanaka and Mifune when the young Oharu backs away from the impetuous page and the two enter a garden: all in one uninterrupted take, he approaches her on his knees and embraces her around hers, she further retreats, and the camera follows at a distance and pauses as, in an exquisite swooning gesture, she amorously succumbs and faints in his arms. As she drops to the ground, the camera tilts down with her, and two stone ornaments rise side by side into view at the bottom of the frame. And as he carries her away, the camera stays in the garden for an extra moment after they leave, and, in a gesture of its own, tilts down a bit more, so that the two stone ornaments rise a bit higher into the frame, suggesting something like two erect phalluses, his and hers, for she has been as decisive as he in consummating their love.
Their breach of the feudal hierarchy entails severe punishment: Oharu and her family are banished from court, and the page is beheaded. At his execution, he dictates a last letter to her, in which he bids her to marry for love. The camera follows the executioner’s gleaming sword as it touches the page’s neck, is raised to strike the fatal blow, and, the bloody deed done out of view, is then swung back. When her dead lover’s letter reaches Oharu, she reads it in held long shot, at the bottom right of the screen, by a pair of hanging kimonos that obstruct our view; we hear her crying but can’t see her face, and can barely make out the knife she now intends to use on herself—though the glint of the blade recalls the executioner’s sword. And in the next shot, which moves with her out into a bamboo grove, the thin stems surrounding her like so many prison bars, and shows her mother wresting the suicidal knife from her and holding her back when she threatens to throw herself down a well, the camera gets no closer and takes a higher perspective—a veritable scroll shot. Why keep us at such a distance at this point of heated emotion? You could say that Mizoguchi aims to cool down the emotion, to maintain composure in the face of misfortune. You could also say that he doesn’t want to confine the emotion to individuals, that he wants us to feel the misfortune as spreading throughout the space the characters inhabit. The violence acutely represented by the executioner’s blade is in the very air and manifests itself again in the knife that emerges from behind the handsome kimonos dissembling an oppressive social order. We are not to focus solely on the plight of individuals but to sense the pervasive strictures of a society.
Like Saikaku’s novel, The Life of Oharu tells a picaresque story in which the protagonist wanders through various stations on the road of life. But the picaresque protagonist usually has ups and downs, and Oharu has only downs, one after another, an accumulation of sorrows adding up to melodrama. In Sisters of the Gion, one of the two geisha sisters is a good girl, generous and compliant, the other a bad girl, rebellious and manipulative, and things turn out badly for both of them—no way can a geisha get a break in life. For Oharu, who is both generous and rebellious, things turn out badly whatever social role she assumes: court lady, concubine to a lord and mother of his heir, courtesan, wife, nun, common prostitute—no way can a woman get a break under feudal, mercantile, patriarchal rule. Women in Mizoguchi are consistently central and consistently portrayed with a sympathy that has no need for idealization. Some have questioned his feminism, which he may not have lived up to personally; some have speculated that he harbored feelings of guilt with regard to women and sought their forgiveness. However that may be, in his art he was a critic of society, whose wrongs were for him most evident in the wrongs done
The flashback to Oharu’s past eventually returns to the opening camera movement behind the aging streetwalker and the abrupt cut closer to her on her other side. Only after these two repeated shots does the film dissolve back to the temple where Oharu has been recalling her past: the same shots that began the author’s prologue now conclude the flashback enacting the character’s memories. The images of Oharu’s past are thus to be seen as both the character’s and the author’s. Mizoguchi at once detaches us from Oharu’s subjectivity—these are not her mental images but an objective reality—and identifies his enactment with her recollection.
The author’s epilogue—Saikaku’s novel has nothing of the sort—seems to promise a happy ending to the character’s sad story. The son Oharu bore when she was chosen for her beauty as a lord’s concubine has succeeded his father and, as the new lord, wants to take his old mother into his care. Once again, as she was in her youth—this is a film of repetitions—Oharu is ceremoniously carried in a palanquin to the lord’s manor. But there she’s peremptorily told that she has disgraced the clan by becoming a prostitute and will not be allowed to live with her son, or even to see him—except briefly, from afar, as she saw him once before in the street when he was a boy and was passing by with his entourage. The scene of her last look at her son unfolds in a sunlit garden, as he and his attendants stride along a veranda. On her upward glance at him, we cut, not to her point of view, as we might expect, but to a distant perspective on her from the veranda, where no one returns her glance, the lordly group entering and leaving view in the shadowy foreground, the camera moving with her as she rises to her feet in pursuit. After another cut, she reenters view, again a small bright figure seen from the veranda, and again the large dark figures come and go in front and the camera moves with her as she keeps trying to get a closer look. Mizoguchi’s skill at cutting is seldom noted; here each cut punctuates Oharu’s feeling of being put back in her place, at an insuperable distance from the looming, ruling shadows.
Her story ends as it began: the hierarchy that cruelly thwarted the passionate love of her youth now thwarts the old mother’s love for her son. She escapes his prohibitive domain and becomes a mendicant nun. The film’s concluding shot follows her as she goes from one house to another reciting a prayer for mercy, which a chorus on the soundtrack takes up as she moves along. The camera moving with her comes to a pause as she pauses and bows to a pagoda in the distance, but when she starts moving again, it does not keep pace with her, letting her leave view and at the same time ascending, so that the final image centers on the screen the pagoda pointing toward the sky. In his later years—he died of leukemia in 1956, at the age of fifty-eight—Mizoguchi was drawn to Buddhism. But the Buddhist recognition that suffering is inevitable does not mean resignation to injustice. In every circumstance she finds herself in, Oharu stands for an alternative to the dominant order. To the world she is soon to leave, she is surely not reconciled.