During the 1990's, both my parents took a whirlwind tour throughout the Far East. When they returned, I asked them what they thought of Japan. My dad adored the country...but my mother told me this was her least favorite destination. "Why?" I inquired. My mother responded that Japan was the most patriarchal culture of all the ones she visited...and she certainly deplored any (mis)treatment of women as second class citizens.
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.