The following is the saddest film I have ever seen about the life of a woman. It starts at a chilly dawn as the heroine wanders, her face behind a fan, until she meets some of her fellow prostitutes. “It’s hard for a 50-year-old woman to get past 20,” she observes. He said it was a slow night: He was only picked up by an old man, who led him into a candlelit room filled with young men. “Look at this painted face!” he told them. “Do you still want to buy a woman? as morally as those within her power.
The women found a friend who had made a fire, and swarmed around him. “I heard you served in the palace,” said another prostitute. “What caused your destruction?” Saying “don’t ask about my past,” he walks away from them and wanders into a Buddhist temple. One of the Buddha images dissolves into a young man’s face, and then a flashback begins which will narrate Oharu’s life from near the beginning.
Her life is fate in the microcosm of many Japanese women over the centuries, in a society ruled by a male hierarchy. Kenji Mizoguchi, the director, sympathizes with women like his contemporaries, even Ozu, whom he ranks frequently. He often subject prostitutes, as in “Street of Shame” (1956). He was known to frequent brothels, not only to buy souvenirs, but to socialize with their workers; it really impressed him that his own sister, Suzo, who raised him, was sold by their father as a geisha. The same thing happened to Oharu in this film.
The character was played by Kinuyo Tanaka, who appeared in 14 of his films, and this one, set in 1952, helped steer his career from his early years as an ingenue to more challenging roles. One of his strengths as Oharu is his success playing the same character for 30 years.
As Oharu’s flashback begins, we learn that she was born into a respectable environment, and was a woman waiting in court when she and a young man (Toshiro Mifune) fell in love. This was banned, the courtyard was sentenced to death, and Oharu and his family were exiled. His father never forgave him for this, and indeed after the scandal he became unmarried in a respectable environment. There was a brief pause when he could sell her as a concubine into Lord Matsudaira’s household. His job there was to give him an heir, which he did, but was then coldly sent back to poverty and prostitution. Her father, who now regarded her entirely in terms of wage-earning abilities, sold her as a prostitute, which he refused, and eventually sold her as a maid to a woman who wore an elaborate wig to hide from her husband that she was half bald. He lost this job because of one of his employers
Now comes the deceptive respite from his misery. She meets a nice guy, fan maker, and settles down peacefully, but he gets killed. He did not receive an inheritance. At a monastery, she told superiors that she wanted nothing: “All I want is to be a nun and be close to the Buddha.” In the monastery, there is an ambiguous scene. A man who knew him came to demand payment for the gift of cloth given to him, and in anger he took off his clothes and threw them at him. His nakedness was only reflected in the man’s eyes, but the discovery of this event led to him being banished from the monastery.
All this time she had dreamed of seeing the son she gave birth to, but when this finally happened, she was only allowed to glimpse him sweeping past as a big man, unaware of his existence. It brings us back to her current life, as a cold, hungry, unsuccessful prostitute.
While most of the film is shot in a straightforward manner, some of it from Ozu’s favorite point of view of a person sitting on a tatami mat, Oharu is often seen from a high vantage point well above eye level. In grammar this camera tends to reduce and objectify the subject, and Oharu increasingly seems less like an autonomous character and more like a subject to study – and pity.
“As the story goes,” said his superior when he arrived at the convent, “the pretty face that morning was the corpse of the night.”
A story like the one I’ve outlined sounds like a spooky melodrama, but “Life of Oharu” intentionally avoids taking advantage of the sensational aspects of his life. All of them are told as sad memories of fate, and set in motion by Mizoguchi to avoid a sensational story climax. Her thoughtful use of period locations, costumes, and rituals makes her heroine experience more like an enactment of ritual. Much of the story’s sadness stems from the fact that no one but Oharu knows his entire life history; she was judged from the outside as an immoral and despicable woman, and we realized this was nothing more than the role society had assigned her, and forced her to play.
We watched the film in disbelief. Surely no woman could experience such misery through no fault of her own? Mizoguchi makes no attempt to portray any male character – not even the father – as a self-conscious villain. Men behave within the limits set for them and expected of them by the traditions of their society. Even the fan maker does, but because of the freedom his job gives him, society gives him more options–or maybe doesn’t care.