Though he was by this point considered washed up by many of his fellow Japanese, the 1950s saw the flowering of director Kenji Mizoguchi’s finest—and final—period. The last four years of Mizoguchi’s life—he would die in 1956, at age 58—seemed to yield one masterpiece after another, earning him belated international acclaim and epitomizing a certain idea of late style. These last films—most notably The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954)—were less formally severe than some of his earlier work. This shift reflected not a lack of rigour but rather the exact opposite: an artistic maturity, a master’s confidence that every moment in a film has its own special requirements that trump the author’s urge to impart a signature. Criterion has just released a deluxe edition of The Life of Oharu on DVD and Blu-ray, and this heartbreaking, unspeakably beautiful, cool yet compassionate picaresque about the life of a “fallen woman” in 17th century Japan gives us an opportunity to observe Mizoguchi at his very best.
With the very first image, already there is movement: the camera follows Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) as she walks through the crepuscular outskirts of Kyoto, one of several middle-aged prostitutes attempting to procure clients. The film is based on Ihara Saikaku’s 17th century novel The Life of an Amorous Woman, which is narrated by an unnamed protagonist. In Mizoguchi’s radically personal re-envisioning—even the title is revisionist: the protagonist has a name—there is no narrator’s voice-over, yet, even though the camera is so often at some distance from the protagonist, every moment of the film feels aligned to her perspective. In the opening scenes Oharu enters a temple—spiritual wisdom being a crucial theme in Mizoguchi’s revisionism—in which countless statues gaze down upon Oharu like spectators in bleachers. Oharu imagines that the face of one of these statues is a face from her past, and the past then comes flooding back: in her youth she was a lady at court, but a humble retainer (Toshiro Mifune) declares his love for her with disarming sincerity. Oharu can’t help but respond to this love, and this response marks the beginning of a string of tragic misfortunes that will come to define Oharu’s life, which is maimed ceaselessly by cruelty and patriarchal oppression, leading to loss, humiliation and separation from loved ones. (Lars Von Trier must surely be a fan—but Mizoguchi is so much more sympathetic to his heroines.)
With its gorgeous, often gloomy imagery and immaculate gliding camera, The Life of Oharu exudes a complex but utterly perfect fusion of form and content. Eschewing close-ups altogether, Mizoguchi’s camera observes devastating emotions from an unusual distance, but this approach doesn’t muffle emotion—it heightens it, give it space to breathe, gives us space to enter into the feeling of the scene, and allows the emotion to spill out from the characters and spread out into the landscape. I worry that readers unfamiliar with Mizoguchi may be turned off by what might sound like the film’s almost perversely insistent sadness, but that sadness is balanced by an equally insistent beauty, and because Oharu’s story is so long, because Mizoguchi follows her with such solemn devotion, there is in the film’s unforgettable final spectral scene a sense of genuine transcendence. Oharu’s life is brims with grief, but she abides, as does Mizoguchi. Someone is watching, telling her story, and the telling itself, so lyrical and embracing, brings consolation.