The Life of Oharu Review
Mistress Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) is a servant of the Imperial Household, a position that gives her claim to nobility and makes her love affair with a commoner Katsunosuke (Toshiro Mifune) a serious offence, for which she and her family are banished from the city. The fate for Katsunosuke is far worse. However, the family’s fortunes improve when Lord Matsudaira sends a messenger out to find him a new concubine. Only Oharu matches up to the very specific qualities the Lord demands, the principal of which is the ability to bear him a son. Once that duty is fulfilled, Oharu is no longer needed, particularly as her other qualities could prove dangerous to the ailing Lord’s health. Her father had been counting on her favoured position with the Lord to enable him to start up his own business so, bitterly disappointed and to pay off the debts he has incurred, he sells Oharu off to Shimbara to work as a courtesan. It turns out to be a further taint on her character that she is unable to shake off for the rest of her life.
With a story synopsis like that (and it is only part of the story), The Life of Oharu appears to make for grim viewing, but it’s to Mizoguchi’s credit – and hence the film’s reputation as a masterpiece - that The Life of Oharu never stoops to melodrama or preachiness, despite the seriousness of its subject matter and the points that it effectively makes. There is none of the didacticism that weighs heavily in places on The Lady of Musashino, nor is it as direct in its condemnation of the hypocrisy of society and the inequalities between male and female and rich and poor. Nevertheless the effect of moving the story back 300 years only emphasises all the more how little modern attitudes have changed towards greed and selfishness, towards respect for privilege and nobility regardless of character, but most significantly towards women - Mizoguchi’s own sister was sold off to become a geisha. Oharu’s fate is also handled with great finesse by being depicted not just as a victim of society and injustice, but also being the victim of misfortune – something that the viewer can also relate to.
What really makes The Life of Oharu work however is the stunning performance from Kinuyo Tanaka – so impressive in The Lady of Musashino, here she is almost unrecognisable, inhabiting an entirely different character from the age of 17 through to 50 and being absolutely convincing at every stage, conveying everything through movement and gesture rather than through any make-up effects. So many scenes are impressive – just look at her range of reactions at seeing her son for the first time or her gestures of almost complete humiliation and resignation at being described as a “goblin cat”, turning to bitter defiance before she shuffles away, broken - brilliantly bringing us in a complete circle to the start of the film. The strength of Tanaka's performance in the extended flashback gives the manner of her bearing a deeper significance and weight when it returns to where we started. It’s this performance and this structure that gives the film an overwhelming power without ever having to play to the sympathies of the viewer and confirms the film's status as a true classic.
The picture quality on the release of The Life of Oharu is slightly better than the Artificial Eye release of The Lady of Musashino, showing very little in the way of marks and scratches and a clearer, sharper image. It’s not perfect however – it’s a little bit grainy in places and a little bit flat on contrast. Night-time scenes are particularly grey and murky, while brighter outdoor shots have a tendency to be somewhat hazy or even flare in brightly sunlit shots. Overall though, for a film this old it looks quite well and will only be disappointing to perfectionists. When it comes to this film however maybe one has the right to be a perfectionist.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack is clear. Voices come through with only a faint hiss of background noise, which is better than it being flattened out by excessive noise reduction – although this is also over-applied in one or two almost silent scenes (notably in the aforementioned scene of Oharu seeing her son for the first time).
Subtitles aren’t optional on this DVD, but are mostly clear and readable. They have no real border however and on one or two occasions they can be difficult to make out against bright or cluttered foregrounds.
The only extra feature on the Artificial Eye DVD is a filmography for director Kenji Mizoguchi.
For such an important film, that even saw a limited theatrical run last year with this newly restored print, the lack of supporting features or information on the DVD release is again rather disappointing. The Life of Oharu however must be highly recommended as a film of enduring importance and relevance and with a reasonably good transfer the DVD at least serves the film well.