Kenji Mizoguchi made over 80 films between 1923’s The Resurrection of Love and 1956’s Street of Shame, but his films rarely played in the United States, and today they’re widely unavailable on video. Some 50 years after his death, Mizoguchi continues to play third fiddle to Yasujirô Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, but thanks to the efforts of his loyal and considerate proponents, audiences are beginning to discover what some have known all along: that Mizoguchi may be the greatest Japanese filmmaker of all time. More so than the director’s Ugetsu Monogatari (or Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Kurosawa’s Rashoman), the more obscure and spiritually complete Life of Oharu represents the Holy Grail of Japanese cinema.
This portrait of a 17th-century woman’s repeated humiliation by her patriarchal society is devastating from beginning to end, but its genius is not so much Mizoguchi’s caustic criticism of a money-obsessed society’s refusal to acknowledge its accountability for her degradation, but that Mizoguchi uses Oharu’s life to peel back the layers of the physical self and reveal the soul that lies bruised beneath. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that two of the film’s more painful sequences feature women taking things off: Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) removes her kimono because a man refuses to let her have the material for the outfit on loan; and another woman lets her hair fall and reveals the bald spot on her head she wants to desperately hide from her husband. In both cases, the male gaze determines and oppresses female behavior and the body politic.
Life is Oharu is not a ghost story in the same way that Ugetsu is, but it sure feels like one. Via the film’s unnerving pictorialism and Ichirô Saitô’s equally spare original music, Mizoguchi evokes a culture’s disconnect from the soul, represented in the film by Oharu herself. The film begins at the end, with a broken Oharu making her way through a phantom town, trying to hide the old age men find so ugly beneath layers of clothes. (You get a sense that if she dares to show her face, she will turn to ashes.) Then the film rewinds and reveals a younger, similarly veiled Oharu falling in love with a young page, Katsunosuke (the great Toshirô Mifune). Because they’re from different classes, they’re love is forbidden, and when they’re discovered together by town officials, Katsunosuke is executed and Oharu and her family are exiled.
A naïve Oharu believes that love transcends class, but the world believes only in money and the exchange of female bodies. Sold by her father to a lord whose wife is unable to have children, Oharu takes to the gothic woods outside her home with suicide in mind. Mizoguchi’s camera captures the young girl’s despair with a single unbroken long take—with her mother in pursuit, Oharu attempts to stab herself, and when her knife is taken away, she attempts to jump into a well. Her gangly, disturbing body movements suggest a creature whose spirit is disconnected from its body. Like a marionette, she collapses to the ground—this will happen again in the film, when a group of women take her first-born child away from her—and Mizoguchi brilliantly pans down to two tiny wooden totems, a visual evocation of the ghostly Oharu’s hunger for completeness in a physical world that doesn’t want her.
Mizoguchi conflates God and love—in a temple filled with statues of the Buddha, Oharu sees Katsunosuke in the face of one of the statues. This superimposition, like the totems in the woods outside Oharu’s home, is alive with hope. But hope is fleeting in Life of Oharu. The totems will crop up again and again in the film, but they appear in different locations, shrinking in size before one disappears entirely—a hint, perhaps, that Oharu is destined to live and die in perpetual exile. Unlike everyone around her, Oharu does not kowtow politely before money, but no one—not the men who buy and sell her after she has produced an heir for their master, not the women who refuse to let her breastfeed, not the woman who hopes to bring her closer to Buddha—seem to recognize this. The logic here: once a whore, always a whore.
Mizoguchi’s mise en scène—even the film’s sound design—seemingly responds to Oharu’s age: it becomes more sinister as she becomes older. Putting on white makeup alongside a group of fellow prostitutes, Oharu practices the ghoulish come-ons that she hopes will hide her age. “If you spoke with your natural voice, you wouldn’t be so ridiculous,” says a man to her. But when she fell in love with Katsunosuke, she did use that voice, except no one would listen. Much earlier, when Oharu’s husband, a fan maker, dies unexpectedly and leaves her nothing, she says, “I want nothing earthly.” This could be the film’s mantra. No male director understood and revered women like Mizoguchi did, and with Life of Oharu he likens womanhood to a perpetual state of spiritual unrest. By film’s end, you weep for Oharu because you hope that in death she will be able to find what she was looking for in life.