One of the best things about films–both good and bad–is that they inspire us to inquire. We ask while watching them: Did it really have to happen that way? Or maybe: What’s with the lighting in that scene? How does so-and-so get out of that scrape? We’re always exploring this universe. There always are questions that come up during the course of a picture.
Recently, I began to wonder if the ones I’m asking while watching certain flicks are the same as those being posed by other viewers. Perhaps we’re all thinking similarly … or perhaps not. In that interrogative light, here are my latest musings, as unattached to each other as they may be:
Does anybody really like the character George Berger in Milos Forman’s film version of Hair?
Which is more disturbing: The discovery in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia that Gasim, the man T.E. Lawrence saved from death in the desert, has murdered another man, or Michael Corleone’s lie to his wife Kay in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather about killing his sister’s husband?
Would Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus be a heckuva lot better without Alex North’s excruciatingly bombastic score?
What would have happened in Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu if the eponymous character had rejected the advances of her suitor at the beginning of the film?
Where did Antoine Doinel go at the end of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows? How about Kevin at the end of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits?
Couldn’t Louis Mazzini just have gone back into the prison to retrieve his memoirs at the conclusion of Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets?
I’m just wondering. How about you?
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.