The Life of Oharu movie review (1952)

The Life of Oharu movie review (1952)

The
women find a friend who has built a fire, and huddle around it. “I heard
you served at the palace,” another prostitute says. “What has led to
your ruin?” Saying “do not ask about my past,” she walks away
from them and wanders into a Buddhist temple. One of the images of the Buddha
dissolves into the face of a young man, and then a flashback begins that will
tell Oharu’s life from near the beginning.

Her
life is the fate in microcosm of many Japanese women for centuries, in a
society ruled by a male hierarchy. Kenji Mizoguchi, its director, was as
sympathetic with women as any of his contemporaries, even Ozu, who whom he is
often ranked. He made prostitutes a frequent subject, as in his “Street of
Shame” (1956). He was known to frequent brothels, not simply to purchase
favors, but to socialize with their workers; it made a great impression on him
that his own sister, Suzo, who raised him, was sold by their father as a
geisha. The same thing happens to Oharu in this film.

The
character is played by Kinuyo Tanaka, who appeared in 14 of his films, and this
one, made in 1952, helped redirect her career from early years as in ingénue
toward more challenging roles. One of her strengths as Oharu is her success at
playing the same character over a period of 30 years.

As
Oharu’s flashback begins, we learn she was born in respectable circles, and was
a lady in waiting at the court when she and a young page (Toshiro Mifune) fell
in love. This was forbidden, the page was condemned to death, and Oharu and his
family were exiled. Her father never forgives her for this, and indeed after
the scandal she becomes unmarriagable in respectable circles. There is a brief
respite when he is able to sell her as a concubine into the household of Lord
Matsudaira. Her duty there is to bear him an heir, which she does, but then is
coldly sent back into poverty and prostitution. Her father, who now considers
her entirely in terms of her wage-earning ability, sells her as a courtesan, at
which she balks, and finally sells her into service as a maid to a lady who
uses elaborate wigs to conceal from her husband that she is half-bald. She
loses this job because one of her employer’s customers recognizes her from the
shimabara (red-light district) and makes crude jokes which reveal her
background.

Now
comes a deceptive respite from her misery. She meets a nice man, a maker of
fans, and settles in peacefully, but he is killed. She receives no legacy. In a
convent, she tells the superior she wanted none: “All I want is to be a
nun and be near to Buddha.” In the convent, there is an ambiguous scene. A
man who knew her comes to demand repayment for a gift of cloth she was given,
and in a fury she strips off her clothing and hurls it at him. Her nudity is
reflected only in the man’s eye, but the discovery of this event leads to her
banishment from the convent.

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