Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

November 5, 2011

Japanese Film: "The Life of Oharu" (1952) by Mizoguchi

The Life of Oharu (Saikaku Ichida Onna, 1952) by Mizoguchi Kenji (1898-1956) tells the sad story of Oharu (Tanaka Kinuyo), who as a fifty-year-old haggard-looking prostitute in the Kyoto of 1686 thinks in flashback about her sad life. She has entered a temple with 500 rakan (arhat) statues, and sees her countless past lovers in the faces of these disciples of the Buddha.

Oharu started out very promising, a samurai's daughter employed as lady-in-waiting at the imperial court in Kyoto. But a lower-class page Katsunosuke (Toshiro Mifune) pressed his love upon her, and when they were discovered in each other's arms, the man was beheaded and Oharu and her family were exiled in disgrace. From then on, Oharu's life was to become an inexorable downward slide, due to the severity of feudal society...

Here is how that goes:
  • She is "headhunted" to become the concubine of a daimyo, a feudal lord, whose wife is infertile and who needs an heir. In due time, Oharu produces the wished-for offspring, a son, but she is driven away with only a paltry compensation because of jealousy of the first wife.
  • Her father (Sugai Ichiro) had counted on financial gains from her association with a daimyo and made debts. He urgently needs money and sells her to a brothel in Shimabara, the famous red light district of Kyoto. But Oharu returns home after quarreling with the owner of the brothel (not a "geisha house," by the way, Shimabara was the district of the taiyu, who were real prostitutes, though high-class). 
  • Next Oharu becomes servant in the family of a woman who is hiding that she is bald from her merchant husband Jihei. The woman is of course jealous of the young and beautiful Oharu and makes her chop off her hair, but Oharu retaliates, by having a cat pull away the woman's wig...
  • Next some happiness seems in store for Oharu: she marries a poor but honest fan maker, Yakichi (Jukichi Uno), but her husband is killed during a robbery.
  • Oharu enters a nunnery, but is thrown out after being caught in the arms of the merchant Jihei who in fact is committing rape (for the second time, see below).
  • Oharu becomes a streetwalker. She has lost everything, and just then, she sees her young son - who is now a daimyo - passing by in a magnificent carriage. She is called to her son's house, but only to keep her shameful circumstances secret. She "was caused" to bear this child, but has no rights on him as a mother. When she hears they want to lock her up, she runs away. In the final shot of the film, we see her wandering around as a begging nun, while a Buddhist hymn is sung by a chorus. 
Mizoguchi based this film on a 17th c. novel by Ihara Saikaku, The Woman Who Loved Love, but greatly changed the story. In Ihara's Edo-period fiction, the unnamed female protagonist enjoys being a prostitute because she has an unquenchable lust for physical love. That was typical male wishful thinking of a bygone period. Instead, Mizoguchi shows Oharu as the victim of a society that was inhospitable to women. She is not a wanton woman at all (in Saikaku's story, she has slept with more than 10,000 men and is still insatiable, and she is the "veteran" of eight abortions), but Mizoguchi shows her as a woman who wants to be loved and respected for herself. That was impossible in Edo Japan, and so in the life of Oharu, the social order acts as personal fate.

Some cultural remarks:
  • "Mibun," one's station in life was of paramount importance in feudal Japan. It could never be changed. The page Katsunosuke was therefore forbidden to love the courtly lady-in-waiting.
  • When Katsunosuke is about to be executed, he holds a fierce plea for the freedom to love whom one wants. Such ideas were inspired by Japan's new post-war democracy and could of course never have entered the head of someone from the 17th century. This is the only instance Mizoguchi's "pen" slips in the film.
  • There is nothing to show that Oharu is "in love" with Katsunosuke, as other commentators write. After Katsunosuke presses his love on her, she sinks to the ground, allowing him to carry her away, passive as women were expected to be in feudal times. Her personal desires seem to play no role.
  • Oharu is found guilty of misconduct with a person of inferior rank and the parents are reproved for lack of parental supervision. They immediately bow to the verdict of exile, as does Oharu, only slightly later. There is no such thing as freedom in feudal society.
  • Oharu's father is also typical for the feudal order that is supported by patriarchy. He abuses Oharu verbally, and when she initially refuses the offer to become a concubine, he knocks her to the ground.
  • The mother never stands by her daughter, she has learned to support the social order.
  • When the merchant Jihei in whose house Oharu works as a servant hears from his jealous wife Oharu has been a courtesan in Shimabara, he rapes her - thinking the fact of her having been a prostitute gives him the "right" to do so - after praying at the Buddhist house altar. Religion makes hypocrites of people the world over.
  • When the Buddhist nun kicks Oharu out of the temple after catching her with Jihei, she does so in a cruel and self-righteous way, demonstrating that she has never learned the compassion her own religion teaches.
Together with Ugetsu and Sansho The Bailiff "Oharu" is one of the greatest films of Mizoguchi, and also the film in which actress Tanaka Kinuyo gave the best performance of her life. It won the International prize at the Venice Film festival in 1952. 

Mizoguchi is one of the "three great Japanese directors," together with Ozu and Kurosawa, although in the West he is not so famous. That is a mistake, as this great film so securely demonstrates. And I haven't even talked about the beautiful long takes, which are nowhere better demonstrated than here.

And if you think the film's feudal criticism is outdated, think again: even today, there are still men who consider women as "birthing machines" (exactly what Oharu is caused to be), such as a certain politician in this country a couple of years ago...