The Life of Oharu (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
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A peerless chronicler of the soul who specialized in supremely emotional, visually exquisite films about the circumstances of women in Japanese society throughout its history, Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu) had already been directing movies for decades when he made The Life of Oharu in 1952. But this epic portrait of an inexorable fall from grace, starring the incredibly talented Kinuyo Tanaka (The Ballad of Narayama) as an imperial lady-in-waiting who gradually descends to street prostitution, was the movie that gained its director international attention, ushering in a new golden period for him. SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES � New high-definition digital film restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition � Introductory commentary by scholar Dudley Andrew � Mizoguchi�s Art and the Demimonde, an illustrated audio essay featuring Andrew � Kinuyo Tanaka�s New Departure, a 2009 film by Koko Kajiyama documenting the actor�s 1949 goodwill tour of the United States � New English subtitle translation � PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Gilberto Perez
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In this feudal society, love (sexual intercourse) between a member of the nobility and a commoner is a transgression of the barrier between the social classes. When it is discovered, like in this movie, it is disastrous for the lover, the girl and her family. A real nightmare begins for the girl O Haru. Her beauty and sincerity are exploited to the bone, by brothel keepers, by those who need a male heir to ensure the continuation of the political and social power of a clan or by males (also a member of her family) in a position of 'strength '.
The choice of the scenes, of which some are extremely painful, and the angles of the shots illustrate masterfully the balance of power in a society run by absolute power (the shogun), a world without feelings and mercy. As always with K. Mizoguchi, his direction of the actors is admirable; not one false note.
This movie is a true masterpiece. A must see.
The director Kenji Mizoguzhi obviously shared my mom's sentiments...and this theme permeates most of his films. In thinking about the director's life, he was deeply disturbed that due to failing finances, his sister was literally sold to be a geisha...yet she helped him greatly in his early career - sacrificing herself for a male of the family. And he never allowed himself to forget that moral debt.
Now to the film itself. Except for the framing sequence, Oharu starts her adult life as a valuable court attendant for the Imperial Court. Alas, she allows herself to be seduced by a man of lower class and even falls for him. This relationship violates feudal standards so much that it triggers a disturbing future of humiliations, one after another....from being a concubine forced to bear a child for a lord and then discarded, to becoming a high priced courtesan, and (near the end of the film) to becoming an aging street walker begging for clients. One of her unhappy fates is to be rewarded with a glimpse of her son ascending - who is a powerful lord - yet be prevented from meeting him. The hidden subtext of sex is common throughout the series of vignettes...since it is sex that starts the downward spiral. One of the factors that makes the film extraordinary is the exquisite acting of the lead actress Kinuyo Tanaka, who maintains a quiet, resigned dignity of Buddhist acceptance of her painful fates. The essential theme, the contrast between her true self (a good human being) versus her public self (a cheap and immoral human being), is masterfully established. It is important to note that not all indignities are committed by men...often women are equally unjust to her - and in some cases, the men come to her rescue. She even has a brief, happy marriage that is interrupted by tragedy.
The cinematography is absolutely stunning...sometimes with interesting angles from above which allows the viewer to imagine himself or herself as an angel in the sky. So many frames are perfect in terms of composition and lighting - that the whole is breathtaking. And this remains true, even though the movie proceeds at a slow but deliberate pace. When the film ended, I was more profoundly moved by it than by the better known "Sansho the Bailiff" or "Ugetsu". In my book, it deserves to be listed among the top 100 masterpieces of foreign film.
Gladly Criterion has brought their usual restoration quality to this gem. The picture quality on both the DVD and Blu-Ray is amazing. The Blu-Ray version was the first version I watched (thanks to my local library picking up pretty much every Criterion release).
This version also contains several extras: commentary, Mizoguchi's Art and the Demimonde: an illustrated audio essay, Kinuyo Tanaka's New Departure - a 2009 film by Koko Kajiyama and a booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Gilberto Perez. The extras are not quite as eye popping as the horde of extras with Ugetsu, but I can't really complain.
This film, like many Mizoguchi films, deals with the theme of a 'fallen woman'. Like several previous films, the main female character embarks on a forbidden romance. After said romance comes into the open, bad things happen. But what makes this film so much more is that Oharu continually tries to redeem herself, but her shady past always seems to creep up on her. The viewer understands that Oharu's initial romance, while considered heinous at the time, is not one that is out of place in modern society. The initial, ill-fated romance is obvious to the viewer, and though know it will end in tragedy, we cannot help but be sad for Oharu. We also cannot help but feel compassion for her throughout the film. This human aspect of the film is what draws us in. Mizoguchi was a master at depicting humanity and engendering compassion for even his 'fallen women'.
The film is long, but unlike other reviews, I never felt it was dragging along. Each new chapter in her life is like a new chapter of a novel. The viewer is never shown overly long sections of the film. Once we're getting near complacency, something arises that throws everything into disorder and Oharu starts over again. I don't know about everyone else, but I found this to be a touching film and I would highly recommend it to any fan of Mizoguchi's films or fans of classic Japanese film in general. Just amazing.
At a certain point I simply checked out. This film isn't like Sansho the Bailiff or Ugetsu, in which there's a glimmer of hope for humanity. It also doesn't have the grittiness of the four films included in Criterion's Fallen Women dvd set -- those films are short, and offer a candid look at life of geishas and prostitutes in a direct, unsentimental, compelling way. Life of Oharu has an artiness (it's set in medieval times) but its unending grimness becomes sadistic -- at times you wonder if Mizoguchi actually enjoys watching the degradations of Oharu.
Tanaka's performance however is amazing -- her face mostly a stoic mask, but at times you see her anger and even spitefulness, like when she becomes the household servant of a wife who is secretly bald. She makes the film worth watching, but overall I think Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu are finer examples of Mizoguchi's art.