Saikaku ichidai onna (1952)


(director/writer: Kenji Mizoguchi; screenwriters: Yoshikata Yoda/from the novel The Woman Who Loved Love by Sakaku Ihara; cinematographer: Yoshimi Hirano; editor: Toshio Goto; music: Ichiro Saito; cast: Kinuyo Tanaka (Oharu), Toshiro Mifune (Katsunosuke), Tsukie Matsura (Tomo, Oharu’s Mother), Ichiro Sugai (Shinzaemon, Oharu’s Father), Kiyoko Tsuji (Landlady), Hisako Yamane (Lady Matsudaira), Jukichi Uno (Yakichi Ogiya), Eitaro Shindo (Kahe Sasaya), Toshiaki Konoe (Lord Harutaka Matsudaira), Kyôko Kusajima (Sodegaki); Runtime: 137; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Hideo Koi/Kenji Mizoguchi; Janus Films; 1952-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles)
“… brilliantly realized without moralizing.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The 52-year-old filmmaker, at the time, Kenji Mizoguchi (“Ugetsu”/”Sansho the Bailiff”/”Osaka Elegy”), is considered by most critics to be one of Japan’s three greatest directors, who is right up there with Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa in quality films but because his films rarely played in the States, in either theaters or video, he’s the lesser known of the three. Life of Oharu signaled his recognition in the West; it’s based on the classic 17th-century novel The Woman Who Loved Love by Sakaku Ihara and is co-written by Mizoguchi and Yoshikata Yoda. It won top honors at the Venice Film Festival. The woman-loving heart-breaking story chronicles the decline of a woman in service of the imperial court who suffers in different stages from exile, concubinage, and prostitution.

Life of Oharu begins in flashback in 1686 in Kyoto, as a middle-aged haggard looking prostitute tells her sad life story after it comes known that she was once in the service of the imperial court. The scorned 17th-century woman is Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka), the beautiful daughter of a respected samurai for the ruling aristocratic clan head, who was a lady-in-waiting in the imperial court but falls in love with the lower-class page Katsunosuke (Toshiro Mifune). He’s beheaded and the disgraced Oharu is placed in exile in her father’s country home. Her lover’s last words were that she should marry for love, but she’s betrayed by her daddy (Ichiro Sugai) who forces her into being a concubine for Lord Matsudaira (Toshiaki Konoe). The lord’s wife is barren and Oharu bears him a son, but is then betrayed by the lord’s council who force him to get rid of her after she provides him with a heir. Back in pop’s house, she’s not welcome and sold by him to a brothel to be a geisha. At last finding a kind and honest man she can love, a poor working-class fan maker named Yakichi (Jukichi Uno), she marries him but he’s soon murdered. Out of desperation to support herself, she ends up as a beggar and then a lowly street prostitute, while her son has grown up to become a lord.

The bleak, uncompromising soap opera story of a long-suffering woman seeking redemption through spiritual means is brilliantly realized without moralizing or resorting to sentimentality. It shows how Oharu is repeatedly betrayed by the males in the patriarchal society, which leads her to eventually blurt out in defiance “I want nothing earthly.” The despair is also conveyed through the masterful visuals and the superb heart-felt performance by Tanaka. Mizoguchi’s rep is as a compassionate director, especially concerning women, and that is clearly seen in his moving portrayal of Oharu.