Criterion // 1952 // 136 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // July 25th, 2013
Only marry for true love.
Kenji Mizoguchi (Sansho the Bailiff) had been directing great films for three decades in Japan before ever getting much international recognition. Then, a few years before the end of his life, he exploded onto the world scene when he started making period dramas, telling stories based on Japanese history and literary classics. The first of these movies and Mizoguchi's personal favorite in his catalog was The Life of Oharu, presented here in high definition as the 664th entry in the Criterion Collection.
Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka, Ugetsu) is a young noblewoman with a bright future when she decides to defy societal norms and fall in love with somebody below her station. Katsunosuke (Toshiro Mifune, Yojimbo) is just a lowly pageboy, and though Oharu doesn't care about that, the court really does. They execute Katsunosuke and banish Oharu's family to a life of poverty. So begins the slow degradation of a woman, from nobility to common prostitute.
The Life of Oharu begins at the end of this sad tale, with Oharu as an older woman on the street, whose age keeps her from making enough money to survive. Her fellow streetwalkers, while warming themselves around a fire, ask her how she came to be in her position, and the extended flashback begins. By the time we get back to where we started, we've seen her as an imperial consort, courtesan, shop owner's wife, nun, and finally the aged prostitute we see before us.
It's a cruel story, but not simply because Mizoguchi, who adapted the screenplay from a 1696 novel by Saikaku Ihara, wanted to have Oharu treated badly. Instead, it's more of a comment of the lack of power women have over their own lives in Japan. It falls right in line with much of the director's work, which often told stories about the plight of women in a feudal society. That doesn't make The Life of Oharu any easier to watch, but it does give the story moral heft that keep it from feeling outwardly mean.
It is, though, a story of constant disappointment and increasing sadness. As Oharu goes through her life, any time there's a glimmer of hope that her life might get better, everything comes crashing down around her. It's amazing that the character doesn't go insane with it all, but she manages to stand up and get on with her life every time. Tanaka's performance through it is fantastic, constantly composed and suitably vulnerable. In her early 40s at the time its release, she plays the character from a young girl to her mid-50s, all of it believable and interesting. Mifune's role is small, taking up just the first 25 minutes of the film, but because the character is so instrumental in everything that subsequently happens to Oharu, it is the most memorable one in the film aside from Tanaka's.
Mizoguchi's direction is fantastic as usual, mannered and slow, but still dynamic and interesting. He puts together a beautiful image, with a distinctive but understated style. The film's episodic nature lends itself to a fast-moving story, but this kind of storytelling sometimes leads to a plot whose episodes are of varying quality. Not so here; The Life of Oharu not only moves well, but is totally consistent and interesting the whole way through. In a career of great movies, this one is one of his very best and, cruel though it may be, is well worth watching both for the finely tuned skills of the people involved, but also for its chilling commentary on the world in which he lived.
Criterion's Blu-ray of The Life of Oharu is predictably excellent. The 1.37:1/1080p image isn't perfect, but it's much better that it has ever looked. Clarity and contrast are fantastic, with significant detail throughout the frame and deep black levels. There is a little flicker at times and a couple of segments have some noticeable white lines on the left side of the frame. It's not the fault of the transfer itself; that's nearly perfect. It's almost certainly damage to the original elements that could not be corrected. The sound is also very good, though the mono mix isn't the most dynamic in the world. It's clean and, though, and strong in both dialog and music without any background noise to speak of.
Extras on the disc are strong, as well. It starts with an audio commentary by film scholar Dudley Andrew that is good for how long it lasts. Strangely, it only stretches through the opening segment and, while what he says is quite interesting, it ceases after that and reverts to the original audio. The supplements continue with a 2009 film called The Travels of Kinuyo Tanaka, which runs 30 minutes and, through archival footage and commentary, details the goodwill tour the actress took across the US in 1949. Andrew returns with an audio essay on the director's life and career and the customary essay booklet closes out the package.
Criterion delivers another great disc, showing a world classic film in its best possible light. The Life of Oharu is a must see for people interested at all in Japanese cinema and history. A beautiful but cruel film that is brilliantly performed and gorgeously shot, this disc is highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 136 Minutes
Release Year: 1952
MPAA Rating: Not Rated