The Japanese jidaigeki films, the costume dramas set in the country's eventful past, are largely associated with tales of battling samurai and assassins in the west. However director Kenji Mizoguchi, whose filmography is full of jidaigeki, was far more interested in the women of these bygone days. He often used their stories to highlight social and cultural injustices, to explore the more painful aspects of Japan's past, and to shed light on forgotten figures from history. His heroines were mostly tragic, often lowly prostitutes and geishas, but their stories were epic and enthralling. My favorite of them is the history of a fallen woman in "The Life of Oharu."
Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) is initially a noble woman, the daughter of a samurai, Shinzaemon (Ichiro Sugai). However, when she is courted by a lower-rank page Katsunosuke (Toshiro Mifune), their affair ends in disaster. Katsunosuke is executed and Oharu's family banished and disgraced. Oharu is then sent from one position to the next, first becoming the mistress of a daimyo, then a failed geisha, then the servant of a jealous woman, then the wife of an artisan, and then a nun. Each time money troubles, unforeseen tragedy, or injustice require her to move further down the social ladder, bringing more shame upon Oharu and her family. Her past constantly hounds her, ruining her chances for happiness. By the end of her journey she has acquired a reputation for being an immoral and wicked woman. She is scolded for her choices, but it's far from clear if Oharu really had much of a choice about the course of her life at all.
The strict social hierarchy determines everything in Oharu's world, and she keeps running afoul of it despite her best efforts. The slights she commits seem so small, and her struggles for self-determination seem perfectly reasonable, but the consequences for non-conformity meted out by the implacable social institutions of the time are dire. Mizoguchi paints his heroine as an entirely sympathetic figure, a victim of terrible misfortune and the cruelties of others. A great portion of the responsibility for Oharu's fate is placed on her father, who views Oharu as little more than a source of income, and proves difficult to cut ties with. This mirrors events from Mizoguchi's own life, as his father sold his older sister into servitude at a geisha house when Mizoguchi was a child, an act which profoundly affected the director's worldview. While the story of Oharu is often lurid and melodramatic, Mizoguchi keeps the focus on her attempts to endure, her moments of personal and spiritual transcendence in the face of so much adversity.
Mizoguchi is generally characterized as the most poetic and contemplative of his contemporaries, with his long, meditative tracking shots and famous "once scene, one shot" style, that avoids close-ups, often keeping his characters at a distance. He was also reputedly a fanatic about detail and historical accuracy, particularly in his recreations of period environments. In "Oharu," I particularly love one of the closing scenes where she tries to glimpse a loved one from afar, the composition emphasizing the impossible social chasm that now exists between them. There are also the various tragicomic episodes where Oharu keeps losing position after position in the different households she's sent to. This allows Mizoguchi to be examine the pettiness and hypocrisies of both the highborn and the low, from the nobles to the nuns and everyone in between. Oharu's revenge against a bad-tempered, balding mistress is a deliciously funny moment in film where levity is rare.
Oharu is played by Kinuyo Tanaka, Mizoguchi's most famous leading lady who appeared in the majority of his films and would later go on to direct a few of her own. From tender youth to decrepit old age, Tanaka imbues Oharu with great dignity and passion, and a sense of steely determination even at her lowest point. She's my favorite of Mizoguchi's tragic women because she yearns so stubbornly for what she dsires, heedless of propriety, to the very end. And because she never gives in to despair, in my view she walks away at the finale with a strong personal victory in spite of all that she's lost.
Kenji Mizoguchi - What I've Seen
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939)
The 47 Ronin (1941)
Utamaro and His Five Women (1947)
The Life of Oharu (1952)
A Geisha (1953)
Sansho the Bailiff (1954)
The Crucified Lovers (1954)
Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (1955)
Tales of the Taira Clan (1955)