THE LIFE OF OHARU (SAIKAKU ICHIDAI ONNA) (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952)
MoMA Film, Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Tuesday, September 3, 4:30
Tickets: $12, in person only, may be applied to museum admission within thirty days, same-day screenings free with museum admission, available at Film and Media Desk beginning at 9:30 am
We used to think that Aki Kaurismäki’s The Match Factory Girl was the saddest film ever made about a young woman who just can’t catch a break, as misery after misery keeps piling up on her ever-more-pathetic existence. But the Finnish black comedy has nothing on Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu, a searing, brutal example of the Buddhist observation of impermanence and the role of women in Japanese society. The film, based on a seventeenth-century novel by Ihara Saikaku, is told in flashback, with Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) recounting what led her to become a fifty-year-old prostitute nobody wants. It all starts to go downhill after she falls in love with Katsunosuke (Toshirô Mifune), a lowly page beneath her family’s station. The affair brings shame to her mother (Tsukie Matsuura) and father (Ichiro Sugai), as well as exile. The family is redeemed when Oharu is chosen to be the concubine of Lord Matsudaira (Toshiaki Konoe) in order to give birth to his heir, but Lady Matsudaira (Hisako Yamane) wants her gone once the baby is born, and so she is sent home again, without the money her father was sure would come to them. Over the next several years, Oharu becomes involved in a series of personal and financial relationships, each one beginning with at least some hope and promise for a better future but always ending in tragedy. Nevertheless, she keeps on going, despite setback after setback, bearing terrible burdens while never giving up. Mizoguchi (Sansho the Bailiff, The 47 Ronin, Street of Shame) bathes much of the film in darkness and shadow, casting an eerie glow over the unrelentingly melodramatic narrative. Tanaka, who appeared in fifteen of Mizoguchi’s films and also became the second Japanese woman director (Love Letter, Love Under the Crucifix), gives a subtly compelling performance as Oharu, one of the most tragic figures in the history of cinema. Winner of the International Prize at the 1952 Venice International Film Festival, The Life of Oharu is screening September 3 at 4:30 as part of MoMA’s “An Auteurist History of Film Reprise,” which gives film enthusiasts a second chance to catch works that have previously been shown at MoMA at earlier hours in the day, when many people cannot see them.