The Life Of Oharu (Saikaku ichidai onna)

Japan (1952) Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi

Social status is a very divisive factor in life – some live and die by it, others couldn’t care less as long as they have health and happiness. Once upon a time, some people were trapped by their social status through the attitudes of their peers and presumed betters, and they were doomed to be defined by something they weren’t.

In the late 17th century, the titular Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) is a former noble courtesan in the twilight of her years. Having been scorned by a priest for her apparent life of sin, Oharu sits in a Buddhist temple and reflects on the events of her storied life. It begins when a much younger Oharu, then a courtesan for a wealthy nobleman, makes the mistake of falling for a lowly page Katsunosuke (Toshiro Mifune).

This breach of social conduct and intermingling of the classes sees Oharu and her family expelled from Kyoto and costs Katsunosuke his life. A short while after, Oharu is chosen by a retainer for Lord Matsudaira (Toshiaki Konoe) to provide him with a son as his wife Lady Matsudaira (Hisako Yamane) is unable to. Oharu sires a son for Lord Matsudaira but his obsession with Oharu infuriates his wife and she throws Oharu out.

Even at this early stage in the story, you may have noticed a pattern beginning to form in Oharu’s life involving her physical worth as a woman. Sadly, this is not one that abates at any point during her life, nor is it of her own making; Oharu is a victim of her own looks, her allure, her innocence; she is a victim of circumstance, of jealousy but worst of all, of other people.

Based on a 17th novel The Life Of An Amorous Woman by Ihara Saikaku, Oharu’s tale is a continuous litany of troughs with few peaks, and a sad indictment of how a woman’s reputation can be so easily built and destroyed by snobbery and blinkered attitudes. I don’t know about Saikaku’s original work but the tone and narrative Kenji Mizoguchi presents is very sympathetic towards Oharu but without resorting to didacticism.

Disappointingly, the worst offender in pushing Oharu in this direction is her father Shinzaemon (Ichirō Sugai). A man of humble origins, he is envious of people with wealth and status, wishing to be in that caste too, and through Oharu, he can vicariously experience this. Sadly, fathers pushing their daughters into prostitution to feed the family was common in feudal Japan, and still lingered into the early 20th century.

To our eyes, this reflects badly on Shinzaemon but in the reality of the story, it is Oharu who faces the backlash and the consequences of her speciously rumoured reputation. When Oharu’s affair with Katsunosuke is exposed, Shinzaemon is furious that the cushy lifestyle they’ve enjoyed has come to an end; when Lady Matsudaira dismisses Oharu and sends her home with a measly pay off that can’t cover the debts Shinzaemon racked up in her name, guess who cops the blame?

And yet when something does go right for Oharu, marrying respected fan maker Yakichi Ogiya (Jūkichi Uno), he is murdered shortly after the wedding leaving Oharu homeless again. It’s a never-ending cycle of despair even when things look up for Oharu – every job she finds is ruined by men being unable to resist her, or women being jealous of her – she even manages to get thrown out of a nunnery!

It might not read this way but the truth is Oharu did nothing to lead any of the men on – her appeal is that she was reticent and aloof, which men obviously found either very attractive or a challenge. The unfairly earned reputation as a harlot hangs around Oharu like the miasma from a rubbish tip, but the ultimate humiliation comes later in the film when Oharu has no choice but to walk the streets yet now she can’t even give it away, rejected at every turn.

Oharu is rightly cast as wholly sympathetic but she isn’t given much agency as a battler, rather infuriating given the amount of emotional abuse she suffers and the damage to her reputation. She never gets angry, rarely retaliates and on the one occasion she does show some fire when dealing with a male debt collector it backfires on her, reducing Oharu to someone resigned to her fate as a worthless commodity. 

Given this is set during a period when feminism was not even a distant notion, perhaps this is to be expected, and maybe in the context of 1950’s Japanese cinema it is also inevitable. Yet, Mizoguchi is keen to underline Oharu’s implied weakness with her less obvious inner strength that allows her to pick herself up and soldier on; we notice also that Oharu is needed by men and not vice versa, a subtle but damning blow to the male ego.

Mizoguchi had fallen out of favour with post war Japanese cinemagoers in the wake of new rising directors like Akira Kurosawa, but here he makes his triumphant return, blending the precision of Yasujiro Ozu with the edge of Kurosawa, and creating a slightly bloated (130 minutes) but nonetheless immersive experience. Visually, the presentation is kept simple but the dynamism and energy of his cast makes every scene full of life.

It feels wrong to say this but whilst Kinuyo Tanaka delivers an enchanting, often elegiac performance in essaying this endless journey of vicissitudes for Oharu, at 43 years-old at the time, it is obvious even when made up, she isn’t the 20 year-old youthful beauty of the flashbacks, although she compensates by convincingly capturing the giddiness, grace and coyness of the younger Oharu.

The Life Of Oharu is a hard film to sit through because of its relentlessly bleak story but an easy film to appreciate as a classic of Japanese cinema. That the central story is 30 years old and is still socially relevance is both noteworthy and scary.