Given it’s stature now, Japanese cinema was an unknown quantity on the world stage until Akira Kurosawa got recognition at the 1951 Venice film festival. This marked a rise in the international interest in the work of his contemporaries including Kenji Mizoguchi. He was regarded at that point to be somewhat out of fashion in his homeland but the reception that The Life Of Oharu received, initially at Venice, brought him to the attention of a whole new audience.
The Life of Oharu is a film that follows the misfortunes of a lady of the court in seventeenth century Feudal Japan. Oharu is the eighteen year old daughter of a Samurai who falls in love with the a man regarded to be of lower class. This romance marks the beginning of her troubles. The shame it causes the clan forces her family into exile. Oharu is sold off as a concubine to provide an heir to another clan. Once her duty is done she is discharged and returned home. With no prospects she becomes a concubine and then falls into prostitution. With factors not under her control, Oharu can see no way out.
The central performance from Kinuyo Tanaka is a masterclass in acting. She has to portray Oharu from the age of eighteen through to her fifties. This is achieved not through the use of make but by the way the characters mannerisms define her age. As a young woman Oharu is carefree and light in her manner. She is quick to please and falls in love quickly without any thought of the consequences on her status and that of her family.
As she ages we see subtle changes. Oharu becomes more reserved. She becomes more silent and subservient. This is partly due to her lack of support and standing within a patriarchal society and the way her life is not turning out as she hoped. It is a coping mechanism for a woman who is all but lost. The last words of her first love resonate through her journey. Just before being executed he pleaded with Oharu that when she marries she does so for love. His words act as a curse on her future.
The film highlights the lack of stature that a woman had in the Japanese feudal society. Oharu is sold at least twice during her life and is chosen as a concubine solely on her ability to bear a child. When she fulfills her role she is discarded in the most callous way. When, near the end, she is given the chance to see her son it is not for a reconciliation but to remind her that she is an embarrassment to the clan. The fact that they played a large part in her downfall is never considered.
The episodic structure of the film highlights the struggle of the main character. Each element can actually be viewed as a self-contained short film. It is very clever and it comes down to the combination of the writing and the execution by the cast. It takes a good film and makes it something quite special.