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The Bette Davis of Japan and Her Performance in 'The Life of Oharu'

Kinuyo Tanaka faithfully portrays different aspects Oharu – pride, vanity, sensitivity, despondency, impetuousness, devout motherhood, and lust – in a manner that is both kaleidoscopic yet realistic.

The Life of Oharu

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Cast: Kinuyo Tanaka, Toshiro Mifune, Hisako Yamane, Masao Shimizu
Distributor: Criterion
Year: 1952
Release date: 2013-07-09

Criterion’s release of The Life of Oharu includes a short documentary, “The Travels of Kinuyo Tanaka”, about a goodwill tour that Oharu’s lead actress took to Hawaii and California in late 1949. It's composed of archival film footage and photographs documenting her trip that mixes the brisk pace of a newsreel with the haunted air that old home footage often emits.

Tanaka was a major movie star and serious actress, dubbed the “Bette Davis of Japan”, and the trip was meant to help heal war wounds and show her socializing with Hollywood stars. For that very reason Tanaka was treated harshly upon her return by a Japan still angry over the war and US occupation. The reception reportedly had a serious effect on her psyche.

This documentary does not relate directly to The Life of Oharu, which was released two years after Tanaka’s trip ended, and any guesses about how it affected Tanaka’s work on the movie would be just that. However, its portrait of the actress and the difficulties she faced in navigating the roles society expected of her are an interesting counterpoint to Oharu, a historical examination about a suffering woman in Edo-era Japan that nonetheless reflects on the present.

The Life of Oharu was the first of Mizoguchi’s three post-war films based on classical Japanese literature that are widely acclaimed as masterpieces of elegant lyricism. (Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff are the other two.) It's based on The Life of an Amorous Woman by Saikaku Ihara, and the differences between the original novel, a more satiric picaresque, and the film, a tragic melodrama, are helpfully detailed by Gilberto Perez in an essay included with the DVD. As comedy or drama the story was a natural fit with Mizoguchi’s recurring obsession, exposing the plights and limited options of women in Japan, often in movies about prostitution.

The majority of the story takes place as a flashback, opening with Oharu as an aging streetwalker at the end of a long night. We see her from behind in a haunting tracking shot that is repeated when the film returns to this present. This shot is the first of a repeating visual motif that emphasizes the covering up and hiding of harsh truths society would rather not see. The most horrible events typically take place off camera, and Mizoguchi makes skillful use of moving walls and screens to conceal and reveal.

While taking shelter in a Buddhist temple, Oharu sees all the men in her life reflected in the arhat statues lining the walls. This prompts a shift to her youth when she was a lady of the court and had an affair with a page (Toshiro Mifune). He seduces her in amazingly choreographed shot where he slides open the wall panels while pleading his love. They are caught and the page is executed, beginning a long series of tragedies, presented as discrete segments in Oharu’s life, as her societal role shifts from court lady to concubine to courtesan to prostitute. As Perez writes, “the picaresque protagonist usually has ups and downs, and Oharu has only downs, one after another, an accumulation of sorrows adding up to melodrama.”

Though Mizoguchi’s film emphasizes the tragic aspects of the story, elements of comedy and satire can be seen in the persons Oharu encounters on her journey, including a country bumpkin throwing money around a high-end Shimabara brothel and a wife who needs help concealing her baldness from her husband. Intriguingly, as an actress Tanaka more faithfully adapts the picaresque genre in her portrayal of Oharu, using each episode to portray different aspects of her character – pride, vanity, sensitivity, despondency, impetuousness, devout motherhood, and lust – in a manner that is both kaleidoscopic yet realistic. Her Oharu is sympathetically flawed, an impossible to pin down cipher struggling against the limitations of her life and oftentimes suffering most when she tries to assert independence.

There's another layer to the film underneath scenes dictated by the material concerns and physical sufferings of the protagonists. Mizoguchi places Buddhist imagery in the background – temples and nuns and songs – that offer a different sort of life from the sex, money, and violence that dictates the main action. Gradually these Buddhist themes are brought to the fore, culminating in a finalé not featured in Saikaku’s book, which offers Oharu a moment of spiritual clarity, even if her eventual fate does not bode well.

An excellent release of The Life of Oharu on DVD is long overdue. While the overall packaging, image quality and presentation here is superb, the normally excellent Criterion falls a bit short in the accompanying extras. I was left wanting to learn more about Tanaka’s role with the film, the socio-cultural situation in Japan at the time of its release, and the role that the US occupying forces had in the granting and promotion of women’s rights in politics and art.

Primarily, I wish the set’s producers could have delved more deeply into the relationship between Mizoguchi and Tanaka. They were fascinating individualists with a long partnership. It has been said that the Mizoguchi’s sensitivity towards women in his movies stemmed from a guilt at his lousy treatment of them in real life. Tanaka worked with most of the major pre- and post-war Japanese directors and became the second woman ever in Japan to direct a feature, which was released the year after Oharu.

A few years later Mizoguchi recommended that the Nikkatsu studio not let her direct a second movie, and the falling out over this betrayal ended their relationship. (Although Tanaka did go on to direct several more movies.) Did Mizoguchi think that Tanaka had exceeded her prescribed role as an actress? The story of how and why that happened would seem to be the ideal companion to The Life of Oharu.


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