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  • Writer's pictureJohn Parker

The Life of Oharu: Criterion Collection Blu-ray review

An ageing prostitute wanders the cold and unforgiving streets, scrabbling a life and livelihood on the outside of the city wall. No longer able to convince her customers that she is still a young woman, hers is a life of hardship and suffering. The other women know that she was highborn. They want to know what has befallen her. How did she end up here? She struggles to a nearby temple, and begins to recall her life story. This is Oharu.

Directed by the legendary Kenji Mizoguchi, the story that follows this harsh opening – told entirely in flashback – is an excoriating attack on the subjugation of women in Japanese society. At once a film about forbidden love, Mizoguchi’s film also explores themes of class, wealth, status, and specifically the role of women under the rule of the Shogunate.

Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) is the daughter of a noble lord, and she falls in love with a lowly retainer (Toshiru Mifune). The couple are caught together in an illicit liaison and arrested. For bringing shame on her family and the clan, Oharu and her parents are banished. Her lover is beheaded.

Oharu’s father sells her to be the concubine to Lord Matsudaira. She bears him a son, and is finally happy, only to be thrust back into poverty and exile when Matsudaira no longer has any use for her. Her debt-ridden father now sells her into prostitution, a fate that Mizoguchi teases us into hoping she might one day escape, whether it be with a nice man who wants to marry her, or with the nuns at the temple. But any respite is brief. Oharu’s story is one of tragedy and sorrow.

At the heart of this devastating portrait of a patriarchal society is the sensational Kinuyo Tanaka. A transformative and spiritual performance, beginning as a naïve young woman who foolishly believes that love transcends social status, Tanaka portrays Oharu through all the humiliation and oppression that ultimately ruins all but her soul.

The Life of Oharu is a great film about women, a bitter account of how society treats them, and a heart-breaking masterpiece.

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