When film academics and critics alike think of Japanese Cinema, there are three names that come to the top of everyone's list, the three masters of Japanese film, the names of Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. Much has already been written about them, and it would take a series of books to discuss these filmmakers with the detail that they deserve. For now, we are focusing on one of these men, Kenji Mizoguchi. Mizoguchi is known for films full of long takes, geometric mise-en-scene and female suffering; no film perhaps encapsulates Mizoguchi's signature style than his 1952 film, The Life of Oharu, being released on Blu-Ray by Criterion this April.
Based on a classic Japanese novel, Life of an Amorous Woman, by Ihara Saikaku, The Life of Oharu follows as the title implies follows the life of a woman called Oharu. Told in flashback, the film follows Oharu's fall from a noble lady, who is banished for falling in love with a lower-class man, to a prostitute. The audience watches as she struggles to escape the reputation she acquired during her affair.
The film is the winner of the International Award at the 1952 Venice Film Festival, and it shows. The cinematography by Yoshimi Hirano and Yoshimi Kono is lavish and striking, complimented by the rich period production design full of geometrical Japanese architecture.
The story is similarly gripping, an epic tale of misfortune and enlightenment. It encapsulates what many critics before me have pointed to as the core of a Mizoguchi film, a deep examination of the circumstances of Japanese women and how they suffer in them. Based on a Seventeenth Century Novel, The Life of Oharu is steeped in traditional Japanese culture, and thus attains the status of a modern classic. Though the story of The Life of Oharu unfolds slowly it hits its main point hard like an unstoppable glacier.
However what sells the film for me is an absolute jaw-dropping performance from Kinuyo Tanaka, who brings Oharu to life. Though her performance is a quiet one full of subtlety, it is in these moments where her eyes are downcast, sitting in silence, we sense her quiet desperation, her longing, her sadness and suffering. Through this we can connect with Oharu on multiple levels, we sympathise with her, as her lot is appalling, but we also respect her for her resilience. It is one of the finest cinematic performances I have ever seen.
Kenji Mizoguchi is almost compulsory to anyone who has a passing interest in Japanese cinema; his tale of Oharu's suffering stands out as perhaps one of his most important films historically. It was after all the film that broke him into an overseas market. Mizoguchi had been making films in Japan since the silent age, and thanks to The Life of Oharu we can see all the films of his that survived.
The Life of Oharu is a classic film in more ways than one. It is a film that perfectly encapsulates Mizoguchi's reputation as an auteur; a fastidious eye, an almost obsessional attention to detail and the ability to craft a story that is a bittersweet exploration of injustice and female suffering. This is all topped off with stunning visuals, a spine tingling score and a career-best performance from one of Japan’s biggest stars, Kinuyo Tanaka
Criterion are a company that produce fantastic discs containing a wide variety of excellent films and their release of The Life of Oharu is no exception. The menus are easy to navigate with their usual set up. The subtitles are clear and easy to read as well, on the main feature and the extras as well.
There are no digital errors in the transfer of the film to high definition. The 1080p visual quality suits the black and white cinematography as well as the straight lines in Japanese architecture.
All in all Criterion make great discs, and they did not skimp out on this release, as is appropriate for one of the Masters of Japanese Cinema Kenji Mizoguchi, one would expect a quality product that would contain this high-quality film.
Not only do Criterion put together a fantastic disc, regarding the mechanics of the Blu-Ray, but they also put together absolutely beautiful extras that compliment and enhance the feature. Though there aren't that many, they all do a great deal to explore the great director and his leading lady.
Introductory commentary by scholar Dudley Andrew
Film Scholar Dudley Andrew pgives a wonderful commentary that provides one way of watching the film. While I am always suspicious of this, I must say Dudley's approach is very meticulous and in-depth. I will also say that it is perfect for someone who is an expert in their field to provide pointers to all the details that you may have missed. Andrew gives an excellent interpretation of the film, visually and thematically, and though the commentary is only for the first part of the flashback, he does so with great detail that you have a new lense to watch the film with.
Mizoguchi's Art and the Demimonde an illustrated audio essay featuring Dudley Andrew
This is a great introduction to the artistic style of the director, Kenji Mizoguchi. It doesn't just focus on The Life of Oharu, but it is also a brief foray into Mizoguchi's filmography. For those who don't know much about this large personality, it is a must watch to gain a small understanding of the auteur.
Kinuyo Tanaka's New Departure, a 2009 film by Koko Kajiyama documenting the actor's 1949 goodwill tour of the United States
One forgets about Japan when one talks about World War Two, or at least they are left out of the European-centric version of that conflict. What this short documentary does is not only provide a wider perspective of the War but also one way Japan sought to reintegrate with the rest of the world after it. Kinuyo Tanaka's tour of Hawaii and Hollywood is purely factual, detailing her voyage and who she met, but it is also highly entertaining thanks to the wide-ranging historical footage and photographs as well as a great voice-over.
The Life of Oharu is a classic of Japanese cinema, it is a fantastic story, meticulously crafted only in the way that the obsessive auteur, Kenji Mizoguchi, can. Criterion was always going to do a great job on the Blu-Ray with a pedigree such as this. They have also provided some marvellous extras that do so much for the film that it changes the way that you watch it. All in all, I would highly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of Japanese Cinema to pick up this Blu-Ray, it is pitch perfect in every way.
This is a classic of Japanese Cinema so of course the film was going to be good, and Criterion do a masterful job complimenting Kenji Mizoguchi's magnum opus with the right extra material to make this a worthwhile investment