The Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952)

…is a very, very lonely and tough one.  We see that from the very opening moments of the film, as an old, haggard Oharu makes her way through a dark, expressionistic collection of alleys and side streets via some rather extraordinary tracking shots before coming to rest in a temple, looking up at a statue, and in an impressive feat of special effects, sees the face of a man (a former lover? Friend? Enemy?) transposed onto the statue’s face, before remembering back to her youth in a flashback that will dominate most of the film.  This is what we’re in for in “The Life of Oharu,” as much of it, like that elegantly tracking camera in the opening scene, will regard Oharu from a distance as she goes through a Herculean series of emotional challenges and traumas, and get the proverbial shit poured on her the way no human being should have to endure.  As we delve into the youth of Oharu, we witness the chronicle of the upper class girl-turned-societal outcast-turned-concubine-turned-prostitute-turned-servant-turned-happily devoted wife-turned-widow-turned-nun-turned-street urchin-turned-prostitute again-turned-mother-turned-street beggar in all its melodramatic glory.  I mean my fucking god, this girl goes through more professions and life stages (all ending badly) than Homer Simpson…which is why plight after sad plight of Oharu starts to lose its emotional potency after a while (in a movie that’s a good 30-45 minutes too long to begin with, it gets damn near agonizing in its repetitiousness).  We’re bombarded with negativity and instance after instance of Murphy’s Law, just as Oharu is, to the point that it almost becomes morbidly funny to see SO much bad stuff happening to one person.  Obviously melodrama isn’t supposed to represent the height of realism, but this is just ridiculous. 

Still, though, at least Mizoguchi depicts hopelessness really, really well.  From that first series of tracking shots on, the cinematography and framing and staging of characters and objects in relation to their surroundings is absolutely wonderful.  Are scenes like that first one heavy-handed?  Sure, but they’re also as effective as you can get at depicting emotion without dialogue without completely going over the tipping point of overbearing melodrama.  The camera will often remain static, regarding two or more characters talking from a distance, and then glide along very elegantly as it follows Oharu or other characters.  We never get too physically close to Oharu, as the camera usually regards her either from medium range or farther away, and often from a high angle, or from behind a screen for instance, perhaps reflecting her own emotional distancing from the world around her – an uncaring father who’s perfectly content with selling off his own daughter as a concubine, a cruelly jealous woman who Oharu’s a servant for, a stingy pimp who demands her own kimono as a debt repayment, even nondescript bystanders who shrug off the nearly-insane Oharu as she pathetically propositions herself in back alleys.  The lack of love in this girl’s life is simply staggering, and Mizoguchi, despite the rather unforgivable cacophony of misfortune in the screenplay, depicts Oharu’s misery with elegance and relative restraint, keeping his and our distance from her physically, as conversations are often filmed in a single shot (you could say that Mizoguchi was the anti-Ozu here – constant cutting back and forth between people as they say something would’ve been jarring and inappropriate).  And Kinuyo Tanaka as Oharu does a nice job despite the near-comically Christ-like martyrdom the material calls for from her character (the other performances, not so much.  I’ve actually defended the showy over-acting of Japanese samurai-era period pieces in other instances, but even I found it to be too much here when everybody but Oharu does the old routine of looking at the ground and speaking earnestly enough for their necks to bulge.  For god’s sake, eye contact, please!).  Initially conceited, then in love, then over her head and sad, Oharu quickly descends into despair and near-catatonia and lustful ravenousness, with barely a moment to lift her head above water when she marries a nice fan salesman for about a minute and a half.  You could say that she grows from an ignorant girl into a wise woman, but sadly, she gains that world-weary wisdom through all the wrong channels, as by the end she’s been through the ringer so much that she’s as emotionally exhausted as we are just watching this obstacle course of emotional mistreatment – a late scene in which her outward madness (more despair than madness, really) amuses a group of men who’ve propositioned her is downright heartbreaking, and a perfectly downbeat coda to the downward evolution of this character.  Filling a full 2 ¼ hours with such a slow pace and such a saturation of hardship for one person defeats the purpose of garnering sympathy from the audience, but hey, at least Mizoguchi frames hardship and misery well, am I right?



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