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DVD Review: ‘The Life of Oharu’ (Criterion Collection)

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Roger Ebert called Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1952 film The Life of Oharu the saddest film about the life of a woman he had ever seen. Indeed, it is a film that warrants just such a reaction. Adapted from the classic Japanese satiric novel The Life of an Amorous Woman by Saikaku Ihara, Mizoguchi’s version paints a melodramatic picture of the degradation of a woman in a patriarchal society that treated women as little more than another commodity, and a comparatively unimportant one at that. Oharu, played with passionate intensity by the director’s long-time collaborator Kinuyo Tanaka, is almost a Job-like figure as she descends step by step to despairing depths, while perhaps through her suffering achieving some sort of enlightenment. 715515107419_p0_v1_s260x420The film is a costume drama set in the 17th Century although its critique of the place of woman in society is no less applicable to their status in post-war Japan in the 20th Century. Indeed, speculation has it that one of the main reasons the director won approval to produce the movie from the occupying authority was that its critical attitude towards the treatment of women was unlikely to pander to any emerging Japanese nationalism. The film begins with the older Oharu, reduced to a life of prostitution walking the street in search of a customer. She joins with some of the other women and tells them how she had been picked up by a   do-gooder who had humiliated her in front of a group of young men, holding a candle up to her wrinkled face and asking them who would want to take such an old hag to bed. She jokes about it, but it has obviously hurt her. She wanders off, following a priest into a Buddhist temple. As she gazes at the statues of the Buddhist saints, one of them morphs into the face of a man. He is her first love, and their forbidden romance was the cause of her initial downfall. The story of her life is then told in a series of flashbacks. Tanaka’s performance is considered by many the highlight of her long and celebrated career. There had been some controversy about a public relations trip she had made to the United States after the war, but she and Mizoguchi were close and worked well together. Although she was an accomplished actress well known for her realistic performances in previous films—indeed during her American trip she was often billed as the Japanese Bette Davis— for this film, Mizoguchi required the more traditional stylized Japanese acting technique, a mannered style more appropriate to his vision of the material.thumb_EB20121029REVIEWS08121029981AR The Criterion Collection’s excellent DVD Is a newly restored high definition digital film transfer of the original black and white film. It includes almost a half an hour of commentary about the beginning of the film from Dudley Andrew as well as his illustrated audio essay “Mizoguchi’s Art and the Demimonde.” There is also a short documentary from 2009 illustrating Tanaka’s trip through America in 1949: The Travels of Kinuyo Tanaka. And of course we can’t forget the ubiquitous Criterion Collection booklet on the film, in this case featuring an essay by film scholar Gilberto Perez.

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