Friday, March 29, 2013

The Life of Oharu

Based on the stories of Saikaku Ihara, The Life of Oharu is the story of a woman’s struggle to find herself after being a concubine for a territorial lord during the Edo in Japan. Directed by Kenji Mizoguichi and screenplay by Mizoguchi and Yoshikata Yoda. The film explores a woman’s life as she is sold into prostitution by her father as she tries to overcome many obstacles into being defiant against many issues set during a crucial period in Japan’s history. Starring Kinuyo Tanaka, Tsukie Matsuura, Ichiro Sugai, Toshiro Mifune, and Takashi Shimura. The Life of Oharu is an entrancing yet harrowing film from Kenji Mizoguchi.

Told in the span of in the span of many years, the film explores a woman’s tumultuous life as she started off as a woman whose father lived as a samurai working for a respected lord only for her and her parents to be banished. Though things seem to look up as she becomes a lord’s concubine and give birth to his child, the fortunes of Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) and her family only go downwards as her father sells her to prostitution to cover his debts. Working at a brothel and then working for a rich couple as a courtesan, Oharu’s life is still troubled despite a few moments in her life that would find her happiness. Yet, she is shamed into a life of cruelty by social classes and the rules of men as she eventually hits bottom. The film is told largely from the perspective of Oharu as it opens with Oharu as an aging prostitute working with a group of aging prostitutes as she’s at a temple reflecting on her life.

The screenplay by Kenji Mizoguchi and Yoshikata Yoda explores the lifestyle of a woman set in 17th Century Japan during its Edo period where women have to play a certain role for men. Yet, it’s a role that is filled with a lot of strict rules and guidelines where falling in love is something a woman who is working under the home of a lord is forbidden to do. It would play to Oharu’s torment as she loses men who want to give her a happy life while she is later banished by a lord’s council for falling for that lord as she and her family receives little compensation.

The cruelty that Oharu would face from her father and other men as well as a rich wife would play to Oharu’s sense of hopelessness. While she would have a few moments of defiance, it would often lead to all sorts of trouble where she endures all these tribulations that lead to her becoming poor and helpless. The third act in the script plays to Oharu finally reaching her bottom as she has endured so much where there would be a glimmer of hope that might actually help her.

Mizoguchi’s direction is very engaging for the way he explores the life of a woman as it is told largely from her perspective as it does sort of begin near the end of the story. Through some interesting compositions filled with some medium shots and a few wide shots, Mizoguchi explores a world where it is dominated by men while women are treated as second-class. While some of the presentation is in the form of a melodrama, there are bits of humor that do play out in the film such as a scene where Oharu exposes a rich wife’s secret after she accused her of having an affair with her husband. Yet, Mizoguchi is more interested in not just exploring the life of this woman and all that she endures but also the system that is preventing her to find happiness. Mizoguchi does play out moments where things seem to go upbeat but always remind the audience that it will only be brief.

By the time the film returns to the temple where Oharu is gazing at statues, it reveals how far this woman has come in all of that cruelty where she gets a chance to find a bit of hope. Yet, there’s compromises that occur for Oharu in the film’s climax where it’s clear that she’s changed a bit in everything she’s been through but the rules haven’t changed. It is in this moment where Mizoguchi employs an act of feminism in the climax though the outcome ends up being far more bleaker than what is expected. Overall, Mizoguchi creates a very fascinating yet haunting film about a woman’s tumultuous life and the cruelty she endures through the unjust system of the times.

Cinematographers Yoshimi Harano and Yoshimi Kono do brilliant work with the film‘s black-and-white photography to capture some of the beauty of the Japanese locations in its exteriors while creating some lighting schemes in the interiors to play out some of the film‘s bleak mood. Editor Toshio Goto does excellent work with the editing by using a few stylish dissolves and fade-outs as transitions along with some rhythmic cuts to play out some of the melodrama. Production designer Hiroshi Mizutani does wonderful work with the set pieces from the look of the home of the lords Oharu serves to the brothel she has to work at in the film‘s second act. The film’s music by Ichiro Saito is fantastic as it is filled with some somber yet intricate music to play out Oharu’s journey of despair as the music largely consists of folk instruments and some intense orchestral cuts to create an air of bombast in the drama.

The film’s cast is incredible as it features an amazing collection of actors for the film. In small roles, there’s Takashi Shimura as an old man who helps out the aging prostitutes, Daisuke Kato as a con man at the brothel, Benkei Shiganoya as a brothel owner, Hiroshi Oizumi as a kind brothel manager, Chieko Higashiyama as an old nun, and Jukichi Uno as the fan maker Yakichi who gives Oharu a sense of hope for a brief period. Other notable small roles include Toshiro Mifune as a retainer who courts Oharu early in the film that led to her banishment, Toshiaki Konoe as Lord Matsudaira who falls for Oharu after giving birth to his son, and Hisako Yamane as the lord’s wife who gets rid of Oharu after the birth. Tsukie Matsuura and Ichiro Sugai are excellent as Oharu’s parents with the former as Oharu’s sympathetic mother and the latter as Oharu’s cruel father.

Finally, there’s Kinuyo Tanaka in a riveting performance as Oharu. Tanaka displays a great sense of humility and anguish to a role of a woman who endures all sorts of horrific treatment in the hands of the system towards women as she tries to live her life. Even as she tries to rebel through small means, she is still ridiculed where Tanaka allows her character to unveil as much pain that she endures in the course of her life as it’s a really unforgettable performance.

The Life of Oharu is a tough yet mesmerizing film from Kenji Mizoguchi that features a brilliant Kinuyo Tanaka. The film is definitely a strong piece of feminism that explores a woman trying to deal with the restrictions of her life during a tense period in Japan. It’s also a film that allows audiences to see how much this woman tries to find happiness in her life while dealing with all of the tribulation she faces. In the end, The Life of Oharu is a captivatingly rich film from Kenji Mizoguchi.

Kenji Mizoguchi Films: (Tokyo March) - (The Water Magician) - (Aizo Toge) - (The Downfall of Osen) - Osaka Elegy - (Sisters of the Gion) - (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums) - The 47 Ronin - (Utamaro and his Five Women) - (The Love of the Actress Sumako) - (Portrait of Madame Yuki) - (Miss Oyu) - (The Lady of Musashino) - Ugetsu - (A Geisha) - Sansho the Bailiff - (The Woman in the Rumor) - The Crucified Lovers - (Princess Yang Kwei-Fei) - (Tales of Taira Clan) - (Street of Shame)

© thevoid99 2013

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