Reviewed by Chris MaGee
Women have often had a hard time in Japanese cinema. From the quiet, deliberate prodding to get married that the heroines of Yasujiro Ozu’s films endure to the entirely different kind of prodding that women are subjected to in such ‘60’s and ‘70’s exploitation films as “Wife to be Sacrificed” and “Shogun’s Joys of Torture” both the innocuous to the extreme aspects of Japan’s prominently patriarchal society have been explored in its films. No other director has shown the difficult position of women in Japan than Kenji Mizoguchi. While his women don’t always attain the level of empowerment that we would equate with modern feminist ideals Mizoguchi’s empathy to the plight of women, especially those of lower class (courtesans, housewives, etc.) is remarkable in the male-oriented world of Japanese films. One of his most powerful statements is his 1952 adaptation of Ihara Saikaku’s classic 17th century novel “The Woman Who Spent Her Life in Love” which Mizoguchi and his screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda renamed “The Life of Oharu”.
We all know the story of Cinderella and how she escapes a life of dreadful privation with her evil stepsisters by being whisked away to a fancy dress ball by her fairy godmother and how her Prince Charming has to search far and wide to find the one woman whose foot will fit the glass slipper. It’s a classic fairy tale that of course ends with Cinderella leaving the poverty and humiliation of her old life behind for one as a princess. Mizoguchi’s film takes this famous story and works backwards. Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) doesn’t start out as a princess, but as a lady-in-waiting of the Imperial court in Kyoto. She has beauty, wealth, privilege, and the eye of every man in the court, but instead of falling in love with one of these high ranking suitors she falls for Katsunosuke (Toshiro Mifune), a mere page. Such a union is strictly forbidden. When found out Oharu and her family are punished by being exiled from Kyoto while Katsunosuke is put to death. So much for a happy ending.
From this point on Oharu’s life is at the mercy of her parents, powerful men, and the iron firm rules of the 17th century Japanese class system. Prince Charming’s search with the glass slipper is repeated when a representative of a powerful lord comes looking for a woman who can bear the lord a son. In a classic example of Mizoguchi’s “one scene, one shot” aesthetic we see the representative move down a long line of young women, looking from them to a painting that personifies the lord’s ideal woman. None of the women in the line up pass muster, but of course Oharu does. She bears the lord his son, but then is thrown away and continues her downward slide. From concubine to courtesan to housekeeper and eventually our heroine ends up homeless, listlessly strumming a shamisen and starving on a street corner. A group of prostitutes save her from a certain death and become the now the middle-aged Oharu’s adopted sisters… or stepsisters.
To say that “The Life of Okaru” is grim would be an understatement, but it is the performance by Kinuyo Tanaka and, once again, Mizoguchi’s empathy that makes this a powerfully human and deeply heartbreaking work of art. In Tanaka’s hands Oharu isn’t just a limp puppet manipulated by the people around her; when she learns of Katsunosuke’s death she is all shock and grief running through a stand of trees, when a man comes to collect a bolt of cloth from her Oharu tears off the kimono she made from it, and when the leader of a group of pilgrims uses her to illustrate a cautionary tale about the evils of the world she turns the table on them and plays right into their prejudices. These moments alone make “The Life of Oharu” a classic and a film that’s I’d highly recommend you search out.