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Relentlessly depressing, grim, even sadistic
on January 23, 2016
Life of Oharu is probably the most famous of Kenzi Mizoguchi's series of what I call "women suffer" films. It starred his muse Kinuyo Tanaka as a woman whose life is an endless series of degradations -- she falls in love with a nobelman (Toshuro Mifune) who is executed for their illicit romance. Then she becomes a surrogate mother for another nobelman, but is cast aside as soon as she bears a son for him. She tries becoming a courtesan, a servant, and the wife of a fanmaker, a nun, and finally, a common streetwalker. There is no light in her life, no redemption -- Oharu's life is one long nightmare, which Mizoguchi films in his typical relentless style, with extremely long takes.
At a certain point I simply checked out. This film isn't like Sansho the Bailiff or Ugetsu, in which there's a glimmer of hope for humanity. It also doesn't have the grittiness of the four films included in Criterion's Fallen Women dvd set -- those films are short, and offer a candid look at life of geishas and prostitutes in a direct, unsentimental, compelling way. Life of Oharu has an artiness (it's set in medieval times) but its unending grimness becomes sadistic -- at times you wonder if Mizoguchi actually enjoys watching the degradations of Oharu.
Tanaka's performance however is amazing -- her face mostly a stoic mask, but at times you see her anger and even spitefulness, like when she becomes the household servant of a wife who is secretly bald. She makes the film worth watching, but overall I think Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu are finer examples of Mizoguchi's art.