Original title: Saikaku ichidai onna
English language titles: The Life of Oharu, Diary of Oharu
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Country of production: Japan
Kenji Mizoguchi's tragic drama tells the life story of a 17th century woman born into high society but driven to destitution by misfortune and a male-dominated world. It won Mizoguchi the best director award at the Venice Film Festival, cementing his international reputation as one of Japan's finest directors. By any standards the film is a masterpiece, offering an impassioned and intelligent critique of a cruel society, directed by one of the most talented filmmakers of all time.
When we first see her, Oharu is a middle-aged prostitute walking the streets, plastered in make-up as she desperately pretends to be a 20 year old. Her life story is told as one long flashback, starting in Kyoto, where she is a lady-in-waiting, seemingly set for a comfortable life in Japan's most important city. However, Katsunosuke, a page and messenger whom she considers her social inferior, pursues her with romantic intentions; when they are discovered in a compromising position, she and her family are forced into exile. This begins a long series of adventures and misfortunes which reveal the limited prospects for a woman of the time, and the patriarchal forces governing society.
Yet at first despite her parents' unhappiness, Oharu's life in exile does not look too bad. A distinguished nobleman, Lord Matsudaira, is looking for a concubine to bear him a son. There is a comical search for a suitable woman by the only one of Matsudaira's messengers who is considered old and infirm enough to be entrusted with the task; she is selected and whisked off to the palace. However, there Oharu is regarded with contempt by Lady Matsudaira, and treated as nothing more than a baby-making machine by anyone else. Soon she finds herself back with her parents, but they sell her to a brothel-keeper to cover her father's bad debts. Incredibly, this is not just a practice from the distant past but reflects Mizoguchi's own life: his father sold the director's sister to a geisha house.
As the film progresses, Oharu moves through a long list of the limited roles available to Japanese women at the time: concubine, courtesan, domestic servant, hairdresser, and a brief spell as wife to an honest fanmaker Yakichi, before ending up as a streetwalker. One of the most memorable images of the film sees Oharu in a Buddhist temple surrounded by hundreds of statues of Buddhist figures, all men. She looks at them and sees in them images of the men who have controlled her life; she points this out to the other prostitutes, who recognise the truth but are able to point and laugh with her in a small act of power and defiance. Throughout the film, Oharu is bought and sold, used by men for various purposes.
Mizoguchi presents a pessimistic view of human nature, with most people only interested in sex and money. Oharu's parents more concerned with their honour and social standing than with their daughter's well-being, while her father sees Oharu's connection with Lord Matsudaira as a good opportunity for money-making. Various repeated motifs indicate the inevitability of the story and point to an inescapably cyclical nature of human life, such as the flashback structure and the former courtesan playing music in the street.
However, the director is also adept at poking fun at human folly, greed and frailty; the fact that its barbs are as often linked to comedy as to tragedy makes the Life of Oharu a far richer vision of human life. It is delightfully absurd to watch Lord Matsudaira's envoys arguing over his insanely long list of requirements in a woman ("thick eyebrows", "long torso", "smaller than average feet") when they're asking an otherwise beautiful woman "What size socks do you wear?" and sorrowfully rejecting her answer of "medium", but it also shows women reduced to the status of physical objects.
The film stars Kinuyo Tanaka, Mizoguchi's favourite leading lady, who gives a brilliant performance. As Oharu she seizes every opportunity with sincere enthusiasm only to see hopes cruelly crushed time after time, but no matter what her position Oharu still maintains a real moral sense which leads her into trouble yet gives her dignity and value. Being able to take the audience through such an odyssey whilst preserving the integrity of her character, Tanaka shows extraordinary skill as an actor. The other performances are as good as you would expect from Mizoguchi's direction and the high-quality cast. This includes the legendary Toshiro Mifune (Rashomon, Throne of Blood - Kumonosu jo - and The Seven Samurai - Shichinin no samurai) as the page who courts her and tries to seduce her. Ichiro Sugai, who plays Oharu's father, appeared in many of Mizoguchi's films including Sansho dayu and another historical epic, Shin heike monogatari.
Saikaku ichidai onna is one of a number of films by Mizoguchi which explore the theme of women trying to hold onto notions of honor and romantic love whilst facing enormous and cruel pressures from an amoral male-dominated society. The equally tragic Musashino fujin, which again stars Tanaka, is set in post-World War II Japan, a world as decadent as that of the 17th century Oharu. It is plausible to see Oharu's story as offering a similar critique of a contemporary Japanese society which is obsessed with money and material things and denies women freedom or happiness.
The film is based on Koshoku ichidai onna (Life of an Amorous Woman) a popular novel written in 1686 by Saikaku Ihara (1642-1693). According to Acquarello, Mizoguchi has modifies the novel in a number of ways, not merely in changing the title from Life of an Amorous Woman to Life of a Woman by Saikaku. Rather than Ihara's impersonal treatment of the lead character, Mizoguchi immediately identifies her and shows her actions are never out of wantonness but always due to external circumstances.
Although the story of the film is little other than a long catalogue of misfortune, a series of hopeful possibilities cruelly destroyed, the way the story is presented is never dull or formulaic (unlike perhaps Mizoguchi's Sansho dayu which, based on a folk tale, preserves too much of the folktale formalism). It is a wonderfully directed film, with Mizoguchi a master of mise en scene: he moves the camera freely and gracefully, notably in a fast-moving chase through Matsudaira's palace grounds. Although the overall mood is bleak, and the film is renowned for the depressing nature of Oharu's life, it is not unremittingly so. Mizoguchi's directorial brilliance and Tanaka's astonishing lead performance make it at once a damning view of an oppressive society and an engrossing personal tale of suffering and hope.
Main cast (actor - character)
- Kinuyo Tanaka - Oharu
- Ichiro Sugai - Shinzaemon, Oharu's father
- Tsukie Matsura - Tomo, Oharu's mother
- Toshiro Mifune - Katsunosuke
- Toshiaki Konoe - Lord Matsudaira
- Hisako Yamane - Lady Matsudaira
- Jukichi Uno - Yakichi
- Hiroshi Oizumi - Manager Bunkichi
- Kiyoko Tsuji - Landlady
Runtime: 148 mins (Japanese version), 133 mins (shorter international version)
Color: Black and white
(Note: all Japanese names above are given in the Western style, with given name first and family name second).
"The Life of Oharu".
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Bright Lights Film Journal. September 1998.
Bright Lights Film Journal. September 1998.