Setter’s ‘Spective: ‘Oharu’ Conveys a Life Not Worth Living

I can’t remember any movie as dismaying as The Life of Oharu.

Not because it’s bad. Oh, no. Director Kenji Mizoguchi, whose 1953 morality tale Ugetsu has to be one of the greatest ghost stories put to film, outdid himself with Oharu, the grueling 1952 tale of a 17th-century Japanese noblewoman whose affair with a lower-ranking retainer incites an existential freefall. It’s typically stunning to look at, with Mizoguchi’s superb sense of composition and eye for detail transporting you back more than 300 years to a world of elegant palanquins and seedy “entertainment” districts. Yet what really grabs you is the story, a harrowing envelope that engulfs the title character as she slips from degradation to degradation. It’s a terrible thing to watch: Most male characters take advantage of her “fallen” status, grinding her down into prostitution and beggary. Even a devout pilgrim humiliates her in front of his comrades, suggesting she’s an example of the need to relinquish this floating world.

Heroes are absent. Happiness doesn’t exist. And I’m still trying to determine why Mizoguchi wanted us to see this.

It’s definitely an indictment: of the hideous treatment of women and the bonds that have historically constrained them in a male-dominated world. Is it an allegory, too–perhaps of post-war Japan?

I don’t really know. I do know I never want to watch it again…though I have to reiterate: not because I didn’t like it. Oharu‘s an important film and a must for cinephiles everywhere. But it’s so tough to watch, and as the miserable, eponymous lady-in-waiting, Kinuyo Tanaka gives a tremendous, sensitive performance that’s so real it’s frustrating. We want her to survive and persist, but for what? For us, the viewers?

Maybe we’re all she has.

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