The film that made Kenji Mizoguchi an international sensation and the first in a string of masterpieces that includes Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, The Life of Oharu is a relentless tale of downward mobility. Mizoguchi often focused on the trials of women in his films, and there’s little but trial for Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka), once an imperial lady-in-waiting in 17th Century Japan, but reduced to a prostitute by the start of the film, attempting to shroud herself in shadow and makeup to obscure her age.
Told mostly in flashback, the film chronicles every fall from grace with an unblinking eye — Mizoguchi’s camera is both detached and elegant, generally sticking to wide and medium shots, but often tracking Oharu’s movements in a way that elicits empathy. The film is restrained melodrama, becoming fully emotionally invested in Oharu’s plight, while simultaneously damning the social structures that forced her to spiral into the outer edges of society.
The initial catalyst is a forbidden romance with a page (a young Toshiro Mifune) that brings shame on her family, and ends with Oharu cast out of court and the love-stricken young man executed. Before he dies, he implores her to marry for love, but the implication that she will be bound by duty isn’t much of a reality in her life anymore. Rather than being expected to uphold rigid codes of behavior, Oharu is now simply fighting for dignity and well-being.
She won’t see much of either. In an increasingly desperate journey from concubine to courtesan to common whore, Oharu is constantly finding herself with the short end of the stick. As her societal status degrades, so does her perceived worth by everyone around her, and the magnificent performance by Tanaka communicates the humiliation and heartbreak in achingly resigned fashion.
The Life of Oharu is devastating and gorgeous; Mizoguchi’s stunningly composed images and editing that becomes surprisingly intimate at turns make the heartbreak all the more emotionally affecting.
The Blu-ray Disc
Presented in 1080p high definition and a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, The Life of Oharu is granted a strong transfer that overcomes some of the problems inherent in the source. Pieced together from different elements, the film has moments that are fuzzier and softer than one would hope, but generally, the image is strongly film-like, with nice, rich blacks and reasonably sharp, crisp images. The frame is often subject to various types of damage, from hairline scratches to decomposition, but the digital transfer does a good job at minimizing the intrusiveness of these without sacrificing detail. The uncompressed monaural audio track is about as good as can be expected, sounding fairly hollow at points and featuring a fair amount of background hiss. It’s not ideal, but it’s not a real problem either.
Criterion includes several supplements from scholar Dudley Andrew, including an illustrated essay on Mizoguchi’s career and a selected-scene audio commentary that runs over the first reel and a half of the film. A short film chronicles Tanaka’s goodwill tour of the US in 1949, where she performed several shows and met a host of American movie stars. The set also includes a booklet with an essay by scholar Gilberto Perez.
The Bottom Line
Another essential Mizoguchi release from Criterion. Now bring on the Ugetsu Blu-ray!