1952, Movies

Saikaku ichidai onna [The Life of Oharu] (1952, Kenji Mizoguchi)

This is one of those incessantly bleak Japanese tragedies that know of few comparables in the contemporary West. Think of it a bit as the Japanese proto Au Hasard Balthazar only it’s about a woman instead of a donkey.


A down-on-her look woman remembers the tragedies of her life: she was highborn but, through the norms and rules of the do period, her luck and choices result in numerous misfortunes. That’s basically it, except for a moment of light that then goes the opposite direction it would in a Western film of the same period. I know of little in the West at this time to compare to something like this. The film is entirely from the woman’s perspective, rape is explicitly said aloud, and nobody ever arrives to save her. (The one time it does happen, it’s a red herring.)

It’s artfully shot. There are few really outstanding shots but plenty of good ones where you admire the framing or what have you. There were more than a few moments where I was sort of smiling to myself about the way a particular character was framed, or the way a room was shown or lit.

As usual, with these films, the attention to period detail seems impeccable. I don’t know, obviously, but whether it’s Mizoguchi or Kurosawa or one of their contemporaries, it always feels like a lot of effort is put into making everyone feel like this film really does take place hundreds of years ago. I can’t speak to the costumes, but the buildings and sets feel quite old.

A lot of people make hay of Tanaka’s performance and I think that’s deserved. She’s a little too old to be playing the woman at the beginning of the story – it doesn’t really make sense when they are lookin for a woman to provide an heir and some women are rejected as being too old – but this is one of the major roles for a woman in the 1950s. (It actually made her famous, along with some other roles, in the West, apparently, and she toured here.) She is on screen for so much of the movie and you never really doubt her. This is also a relatively subdued performance for a Japanese actor of the period. (It helps that it’s a woman, as men got the really over-the-top roles.)

Like many of Mizoguchi’s films, this is a lot. It’s not an easy film to watch and it’s basically unrelenting in its bleakness. But it’s extremely well-made and it is honest about a subject that was not treated with much honesty in the West.


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