Home Video Hovel: The Life of Oharu, by Scott Nye
If we’re lucky, our lives come to amount to a series of decisions we’ve made – offers accepted, ambitions pursued – that more or less adhere to a series of core principles we believe ourselves to possess. Having a few years to reflect upon said decisions, we hope to generally look back and say we did all right by them. Oharu tries, she really does. She falls in love with the wrong type of man at a young age, to disastrous consequences for her entire family. She tries to amend this, only for her success to destroy her. Little by little, her integrity is whittled away, until the only choices in front of her are to be rid of it completely. An overview of her life could qualify her a failure at every turn, but the details reveal how little was ever in her control, how the people in her life (mostly men) shaped her circumstances, and how they spurned any effort to repay them. Humiliation is unbearable even in small doses – over a lifetime, it corrodes the soul.
As the world community tried to grapple with the horrors of World War II, melodrama became a natural outlet for postwar anxiety. Whereas those in America dealt with the sense that having everything wasn’t nearly enough, Japanese melodramas were focused around tragic, fallen empires, and the unstoppable transition away from old traditions towards an uneasy modernism. At the start of the film bearing her name, Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) is extremely well off – her family has great standing and more than modest wealth, and her life, preordained though it may be, is destined to be a very comfortable one. It’s no secret to an audience, attuned to the movements of melodrama, that tragedy will befall her, but what separates The Life of Oharu from most other films like it is how intensely personal it becomes. It’s not enough that her status and fortune should be continually stripped from her, but she is aggressively insulted and demeaned in the process.
The exact nature of the “crimes” for which she is accused have, sadly, become no less pertinent in the hundreds of years that have passed since the setting of the film, nor the sixty that have passed since its release. No matter the actual events, always the one responsible when men get too affectionate (the most common cause of her misfortune) – to use more modern terminology, she was “asking for it.” The men have constructed a system by which they always have a way to pass the responsibility off to her, thus never having to feel guilt for her eventual fate, a system so pervasive even the few women who come to her aid feel justified in then casting her away.
Director Kenji Mizoguchi’s great triumph is in focusing these systemic elements on the emotional, the personal, and the resonant. Oharu may be the victim of many a grave injustice, but the injustice is not the focus – Oharu is. Tanaka’s rendering of the protagonist rarely reaches the operatic heights in which Japanese cinema often operated (and, indeed, much of the cast does here), but when she does explode, as in an early, minute-long tracking shot as she runs through a forest in agony, it becomes really affective. Conversely, the way that heightened emotion is slowly beaten out of her, towards a placid acceptance of her horrible life, becomes just as powerful. In turn, this only amplifies the injustice, as we come to face very directly its most unfortunate results. Yet Mizoguchi ensures it’s not pure misery, peppering it with moments of lightness and joy, maintaining a steady pace that only resembles slowness, much closer to the peaceful flow of a river, undermining – or at least easing – the misery in a subtle, but affecting way.
Long relegated to public domain and foreign region releases, the Criterion Collection brings The Life of Oharu to authorized home video in the United States in a glorious fashion. The print was struck directly from the original camera negative (except for the first reel, for which they used a different source), and though it has clearly seen better days (a slightly rainfall of scratches permeate the picture), it looks really tremendous in high definition. Contrast is carefully balanced without throwing away the grays, and there’s a real sense of the integrity of 35mm film throughout. The film is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio, 1.37:1.
There are only a few short special features on this disc, but each are so extraordinary, they easily make up for that. Dudley Andrew leads the charge with a partial commentary (covering the first twenty-eight minutes of the film) and a video essay, which I’d recommend viewing in that order. The commentary provides some production details and analysis, creating a rubric through which to view the rest of the film. While I’d love to have heard him talk over the entire running time, so thoughtful is his analysis, this small snippet might have been the totality of his contributions, and if so, I appreciate its conciseness. The video essay covers more of Mizoguchi’s career, and relationship to the source text for The Life of Oharu, also extensively discussing Utamaro and His Five Women, the director’s 1946 film.
Finally, we get a half-hour documentary discussing Kinuyo Tanaka’s controversial trip to Hawaii in the late 1940s. The trip was intended to heal the wounds still left over from World War II, and while this piece doesn’t dive too far into all that, it proves a valuable document of the era and the trip, often just detailing her stops along the way. That sounds boring, but what it reveals is that Tanaka was bound by the same sort of strictures as the characters she played, feeling it necessary to behave in certain “Western” ways, and visiting a number of places and people purely for the purposes of ambassadorship, a role celebrities have often played, even as it falls well outside of their profession.
Lastly, Gilberto Perez contributes a very fine essay that takes a kind of standard, walk-through-the-movie format, but presents its own perspective distinct from Andrew’s.
Melodramas have become less and less popular with audiences both commercial and critical, but I remain an ardent champion. The cinema in all its various forms is so often about wish fulfillment, confrontation, and redemption that I really respond to these great movies that deal with disappointment, regret, and melancholy in such a carefully observed, finely-wrought way. If you also take an interest in these subjects, check out Criterion’s release of The Life of Oharu.