About halfway through Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life Of Oharu, there’s a scene that plays like a cruel twist on Cinderella. A messenger for Lord Matsudaira (Toshiaki Konoe), exhausted to the point of collapsing after a long journey, breathlessly announces that Matsudaira needs to find a mistress to bear him the son his barren wife cannot deliver. Matsudaira has heard wonderful things about the women of Kyoto, but not any ol’ pretty woman will do: She has to meet the specifications laid out in a detailed drawing, from physical attributes (between 15 and 18, fashionably round face and eyes, thick eyebrows, small mouth, nice arches, plump bottom) to social pedigree (noble in birth, but with a meek personality). In other words, a pretty slim glass slipper.
Nevertheless, the women of the area line up along the street like a human bazaar as the messenger, ruler in hand, assesses the flaws that make each of them totally unsuitable for his master. When he finally reaches Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka), who’s doing everything she can to avoid attention, he cannot believe his luck. She’s perfect. Everyone expects her to be happy: She’s about to move back up to a higher social station, her parents will be rescued from poverty and destitution, and her days of being a humble courtesan are over. But what has she really won? The seething resentment of Matsudaira’s wife, a child she’ll never nurse or be allowed to claim as a son, and the lingering stigma of being sold as a prostitute. “You’re no different from a fish on a chopping board,” one man tells her. “We can serve you up any way we like.”
Produced during the peak of Mizoguchi’s career—an early-to-mid-’50s run that included masterpieces like 1953’s Ugetsu and 1954’s Sansho The Bailiff, and ended with his death in 1956, the year his great final film, Street Of Shame, was released—1952’s The Life Of Oharu continued his preoccupation with the suffering of woman throughout Japanese history. Though The Life Of Oharu takes place during the Edo period, when the social hierarchy was rigidly enforced, Mizoguchi put Oharu, a noblewoman forced to be a courtesan, on a continuum with the women in a contemporary red-light district in Street Of Shame. In both cases, they exercise the same narrow set of choices until they arrive at a place where they have no choice at all, and no hope for deliverance. Over the course of The Life Of Oharu—a film that still feels ruthlessly compressed at 148 minutes—Mizoguchi follows one woman as she falls, rung by rung, down the social ladder, for no other crime than loving the wrong man. It’s a devastating journey, and for Mizoguchi, a direct, blunt statement of purpose.
After a framing scene that finds Oharu at the bottom, with a hunched gait that suggests she’s decades older than her actual age, Mizoguchi flashes back to the startling image of her as a young woman, wealthy and haughty, at the prime of her life. Flush with emotion, she makes a single decision that will effectively end her ability to make decisions for the rest of her life: She falls in love with Katsunosuke (Toshirô Mifune), a man of lower social station. For this, Katsunosuke is executed and Oharu and her parents (Tsukie Matsuura and Ichirô Sugai) are exiled from Kyoto, leaving their family and friends forever. Oharu attempts suicide but fails, and what follows is a long series of debasements, of which her recruitment as Lord Matsudaira’s mistress is only the beginning.
The Life Of Oharu takes shape like Mizoguchi’s Sansho The Bailiff, both about good, principled, loving people who are driven into exile and faced with hardship and tragedy of immense proportion. The films gain much of their power from the embers of idealism that still burn, however faintly, when all seems lost—though The Life Of Oharu is the bleaker and more pessimistic of the two films, isolating its heroine so completely that the audience becomes the only sympathetic witness to her pain. A brutal class system explains many of the setbacks she faces, but Mizoguchi, who might be called a feminist director, condemns a society that caters to the whims and pleasures of men while leaving women to wriggle on the chopping board.
Adapted from various stories in a Saikaku Ihara anthology called The Life Of An Amorous Woman, the film has an episodic quality that initially feels thin, as if each phase of Oharu’s life has been abridged to the point where it doesn’t have the force it might have otherwise. Those first series of scenes with Mifune, for example, don’t have the time and space to make their deep feelings for each other—and the consequences of following those feelings—particularly comprehensible. But as these small stories accumulate, so does the scope of Mizoguchi’s vision and the magnitude of Oharu’s terrible struggle. Viewers come to fully understand how Oharu arrived at that low place at the beginning of the film, and how little she did to get there. Her destiny was not her own.
Scholar Dudley Andrew brings historical context and a close critical reading to two of the supplements: The first, a commentary track, only covers the first 25 minutes of the film, but gets into the “legendary agony” of the production and the high stakes for both Mizoguchi, who saw his reputation sink in the 1940s, and the popular Tanaka, who was trashed in the gossip pages for a scandalous three-month trip to America. Andrew also mentions Cahiers Du Cinéma’s reverence for Mizoguchi, particularly his sophisticated, “sublime” use of mise en scène. Andrew’s illustrated essay “Mizoguchi’s Art And The Demimonde” continues along the same line, but with narration over photos and other archival material, and a key assertion that Mizoguchi’s Utamaro And His Five Women, a biopic about a famous woodblock artist, was the main stepping stone to The Life Of Oharu. Koko Kajiyama’s 30-minute documentary “The Travels Of Kinuyo Tanaka” goes deeper into Tanaka’s controversial journey to Hawaii and California, which set off such an uproar that she reportedly considered suicide.