The Life of Oharu is directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, who is considered by many to be the greatest director to ever come out of Japan. He was favoured by French critics at Cahiers du Cinéma over those who, like Akira Kurosawa, were considered too Western, as they saw Mizoguchi as more culturally “Japanese.” Schlock maestro Lloyd Kaufman of Troma Entertainment has said repeatedly that he considers Princess Yang Kwei-Fei the greatest film he has ever seen.
However, I had never seen anything by Mizoguchi, despite having a copy of the Masters of Cinema boxset that came out a few years ago, before watching The Life of Oharu. It’s kind of a mishmash (at least to my eyes) of the styles of the other two heavyweights of Japanese cinema, Yasujirō Ozu and Akira Kurosawa. The Life of Oharu has the epic scope of Kurosawa, but with the personal drama of Ozu’s work. Of course, Kurosawa did amazing dramas as well, but he is primarily known for his samurai films.
It’s based on a novel by Ihara Saikaku, who was the creator of the “floating world” genre of Japanese prose writing. The film, as the title suggests, is about Oharu, who is looking back at the truly devasting life she has lived. It’s an extraordinary fall from grace and just sheer bad luck that begin the descent into hell for Oharu, who ends up selling herself on the street.
The performance from Kunuyo Tanaka is one for the ages, even if it’s slightly exaggerated in style. This is typical of Japanese cinema, and comes out of Kabuki theatre. She worked with all three of the heavyweights, but is primarily remembered for her work with Mizoguchi. She also was also only the second woman to have a career as a director in Japan, but seems that her films are extremely rare and hard to obtain.
The Life of Oharu also boosts a small but important supporting role from Toshiro Mifune as the page she starts an affair with. They are soon found out, which starts the ball rolling towards her eventual downfall. I didn’t even recognize Mifune, which was one of his specialties as a performer during his heyday, a time that he worked most notably with Kurosawa on sixteen features. Mifune did once say about Kurosawa: “I am proud of nothing I have done other than with him,” which is selling himself short. Especially during the ’40s and ’50s, he did plenty of good work with directors who weren’t Kurosawa, and this is a prime example.
Overall the film is a strong piece of work, even if it’s a bit on the lengthy and slow side, with plenty of the long takes that are one of Mizoguchi’s trademarks. Despite being well into his third decade as a film director, it wasn’t till The Life of Oharu that Mizoguchi got international attention. The French critic turned filmmaker Jacques Rivette admired Mizoguchi greatly, and at one point considered The Life of Oharu as his favourite film.
Criterion’s package has a nice selection of special features, of course, including an introductory commentary by Dudley Andrew, who also supplies an excellent visual essay. The set is rounded off with a documentary about Kinuyo Kajiyama’s goodwill tour of the US post -War II and a booklet with an essay by Gilberto Perez.