Movie Review: The Life of Oharu (1952)

Well we might as well let the cat out of the bag here people (what?). I’m an art history major, and as a result I’m taking a fascinating seminar on Ukiyo-e, or “Art of the Floating World” during Edo Period (1615-1868) Japan. We’re covering everything from literature to theater to prints to erotica, so it’s a bit overwhelming but really cool. We have several films to watch as part of the class- either depictions of the time period or influenced by it. The first of which was The Life of Oharu, based on “The Life of an Amorous Woman” (1686) by Saikaku (Japan’s main literary innovator of the time).

First, a bit of background. The text on which this is (loosely) based takes the form of an old woman telling her life story as she moved from occupation to occupation propelled by lust. She slept with hundreds of men, had many abortions, caused some suicides, and ruined several relationships (of other people, that is). She’s shameful of a lot her actions, but also very open and excited about her passion and her experiences. It is pretty sexist but at the same time interesting in its depiction of a strong-willed, very independent working woman, following her desires in the 1600s.

This very long film draws a few exact scenes from the story and has the basic idea of following a woman who sinks lower and lower in her profession until she is an unlicensed prostitute, but the central character and overall tone is completely changed. She is now innocent and reserved, sleeping with many men generally because they force her or as a way of making money (her father is in great debt); nothing is done out of passion. A minor plot about a son she is forced to bear but unable to see is added, eliciting one or two watery eyes from yours truly. The beautiful, careful visuals soften everything even further. Because this pathetic life has been thrust unfairly onto someone so passive, the film is more sympathetic than the book (whose narrator was often self-referentially despicable). It’s also more tied together. The book is more a collection of reminiscences, with little sense of linearity. In the movie we see Oharu age and be affected by her past. She is more relatable, but also more stereotypical.

You can see I have mixed feelings. Saikaku’s story bothered me because of the weird juxtaposition of an independent woman who was misogynist (the result of a sexist man writing a female protagonist, I guess?). The movie bothered me because of how generally passive Oharu is. Overall it’s still a really beautiful film and an interesting glimpse into the position of women in Edo Period Japan. Kinuyo Tanaka’s performance was highly praised, and I was impressed with her ability to portray so many ages and to wholly carry the film despite not having a great amount of dialogue. Plus it won some awards! I think it was the first film from Japan to be internationally acclaimed, or entered in the Venice Film Festival, or some landmark of the sort (anyone who knows the specifics, please tell me). Also Mizoguchi is a pretty prolific, big deal Japanese director so I guess it’s important if your interest is non-Western cinema. Basically, watch it only if you’re into this sort of thing.

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