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Life of Oharu

The Life of Oharu (1952), which depicts the misadventures of a courtesan in Edo-period Japan, was the first of three masterpieces starring Kinuyo Tanaka that Kenji Mizoguchi directed in the early 1950s. The two films that followed were Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954). Together, they represented the peak of Mizoguchi and Tanaka's collaboration, which spanned fifteen films from 1944 to 1954. The Life of Oharu in particular stands out for Tanaka's complex and ironic performance. The three films are also among the most beautiful ever made, thanks to Mizoguchi's richly coordinated and sensitive direction.

The original title for the film in Japanese, Saikaku Ichidai Onna, translates roughly as "Saikaku's Life of a Woman." It refers to the writer Ihara Saikaku's 1686 comic novel The Life of an Amorous Woman (Koshoku Ichidai Onna), from which it is adapted. Born in Osaka, Saikaku (1642-1693) lived under the Tokugawa shogunate of the Edo period, and his writings reflect that cultural environment. Saikaku first became known for his haikai poetry, which was distinguished by its accessibility and its use of everyday language. Saikaku's prose fiction belonged to a larger body of Japanese literature known as kana-zoshi, literature written in phonetic script and intended for a popular audience, especially the growing merchant class of early modern Japan. He was instrumental in the development of the subgenre known as ukiyo-zoshi ("notes of the Floating World"), which focused on the lives of actors and courtesans in the demimonde. Among other things, the stories depicted notorious red-light districts such as Yoshiwara (in Tokyo, formerly known as Edo), Shinmachi (Osaka) and Shimabara (Kyoto).

Saikaku's first major work of fiction was The Life of an Amorous Man (1682); it was followed by Five Women Who Chose Love (1686) and The Life of an Amorous Woman. These novels offered lively, realistically detailed portraits of Japanese society during this period, especially the milieu of the "Floating World." Written in a "mixture of classical and colloquial style" according to Ivan Morris, the novels contained episodic plots and many frank and amusing erotic scenes.

Mizoguchi's film takes a number of liberties with the source novel in order to shape it into a coherent feature film. Most importantly, it gives the heroine a stronger presence as a character. Indeed, the Japanese critic Tadao Sato argues that Tanaka gives "one of the best performances of her life" in The Life of Oharu, especially in the way that her subtle facial expressions lend psychological depth to her character beyond what was present in the nameless heroine of the source novel. Mizoguchi also discards the novel's explicit erotic content and shifts the overall tone toward his preferred vein of melodrama, though the film still retains many comic elements. He is said to have claimed that he wanted to make the film "à la Chaplin." Notable comic highlights include a scene where one of Lord Matsudaira's retainers searches for a woman who can meet his lord's impossibly specific requirements for a concubine. Later, when Oharu is in the midst of her affair with Lord Matsudaira, one of the court members remarks, "His energy seems to be draining from him. The doctor says if she continues to live with him his life may be shortened." This is the kind of tart observation that one often finds in Saikaku's writings. Another highlight in the film is Oharu's revenge against her bald mistress when she is employed as a hairdresser.

If the plight of women--especially that of courtesans and prostitutes--is a recurring theme in Mizoguchi's work, it likely has roots in his personal experience. Mizoguchi's sister Susumo ("Suzu") was sold by his family to be a geisha. In fact, the family name of Lord Matsudaira in the film and the incident of Oharu's pregnancy may well have come from the real-life experiences of his sister, who became the lover of Viscount Matsudaira Tadamasa and bore four children by him.

The Life of Oharu also embodies the extraordinary mastery of style that Mizoguchi achieved during this period. The most noteworthy aspect is his use of long takes; often an entire scene is staged within a single shot. In fact, there are only 197 shots in the entire film, which is remarkable considering that it runs well over two hours. Not only does Mizoguchi choreograph the actors within the camera's extensive tracking shots, but he constructs a number of scenes out of complex groupings of characters. Highlights include a tracking shot of Oharu running through a bamboo grove after her lover is executed, and the scene toward the end of the film when she attempts to speak to her long-estranged son in the palace despite the efforts of guards to prevent her from reaching him. If anything, Mizoguchi achieved still greater artistic refinement in Ugetsu Monogatari and Sansho the Bailiff, both photographed by the great Kazuo Miyagawa, but his work in The Life of Oharu with the cinematographer Yoshimi Hirano is nonetheless remarkable in its own right. At the 1952 Venice Film Festival, the film won the International Award and was nominated for a Golden Lion, making it one of the first Japanese films to attract international attention alongside Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950).

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Screenplay: Yoshikata Yoda, adapted from Ihara Saikaku's novel The Life of an Amorous Woman
Cinematography: Yoshimi Hirano
Production design: Hiroshi Mizutani
Music: Ichiro Saito
Film Editor: Toshio Goto
Cast: Kinuyo Tanaka (Oharu); Toshiro Mifune (Katsunosuke); Masao Shimizu (Kikuoji); Tsukie Matsura (Oharu's mother); Ichiro Sugai (Oharu's father); Kiyoko Tsuji (landlady); Toshiaki Konoe (Lord Matsudaira); Hisako Yamane (Lady Matsudaira); Yuriko Hamada (Otsubone Yoshioka), Noriko Sengoku (Sakurai); Haruyo Ichikawa (Iwabashi); Kyoko Kusajima (Sodegaki); Eitaro Shindo (Kahei Sasaya).
BW-148m.

by James Steffen

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