Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi had made eighty films that were largely unknown quantities in the West when his The Life of Oharu premiered at the Venice Film Festival and tied for the Golden Lion. A biographical tale of thirty years in the life of a 17th century Japanese woman who knows no end of grief and suffering, director Mizoguchi celebrates her fierce determination to continue life’s struggle rather than giving up and ending it all and makes her life’s journey one of near-celebration rather than one of dejection.
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: Japanese 1.0 PCM (Mono)
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 2 Hr. 16 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-raykeep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Release Date: 07/09/2013
Fifty-year old prostitute Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) enters a Buddhist temple and reflects on the previous thirty years of trials and tribulations that have afflicted her, all owing to men who have either used or abused her. From the earliest blushes of young love with a lord’s retainer (Toshiro Mifune) which led to her and her family’s banishment from Kyoto to serving as the royal concubine and siring a future heir, a brief but mostly happy period as a courtesan and later a happily married lady (both circumstances ending in tragedy) and later attempts to enter a nunnery and then to the streets, Oharu’s story is a study of heroism and heart in the face of almost continual misfortune.
The Production Rating: 4/5
Based on the novel by Saikaku Ihara, the script by director Kenji Mizoguchi and Yoda Yoshikata divides Oharu’s life into eight distinct compartments. Told mostly in flashback, the film’s measured pace by director Mizoguchi is typical of his technique. The camera is relatively still for long periods (he adores long takes and sets up definite composed motifs which reflect his talent as a painter) but does track slowly when there is character movement or something within the setting worth seeing, and there’s one exhilarating tracking shot as Oharu bounds through a bamboo forest in her only suicide attempt once she learns of her lover’s execution. This moment of youthful passion never occurs again; Oharu takes the stings that life constantly pelts her with and tries something else. Though the tone is rather sublimely somber for much of the movie, there are spurts of slapstick comedy (a man throwing around money is revealed to be a counterfeiter, Oharu gains her revenge on her secretly bald mistress with a handy housecat) that bring a welcome respite from all of the tragic setbacks the main character must continually endure.
It’s a tour de force performance for Japan’s most celebrated actress Kinuyo Tanaka as the title character since she must age thirty years and endure constant hardships without resorting to eternal weeping and continual prostrations on the ground over her misfortunes. And while not a raving beauty, she exudes an allure that captures the hearts of many men during the course of the character’s earlier years. Those expecting to see much of superstar Toshiro Mifune (third billed in the credits) will be sadly disappointed in his character’s brief (possibly ten minutes but no more) appearance early in the film as Oharu’s first and truest love. As for the other men who are the bane of her existence, Ichiro Sugai is very memorable as her selfish, mercenary father (he barters her away on three different occasions in the movie), Jukichi Uno has some lovely albeit brief scenes as Oharu’s husband, and Tashiaki Konoe is the stately Lord Matsudaira who after impregnating Oharu begins to like her just a bit too much, much to the chagrin of his jealous wife (Hisako Yamane). Yuriko Hamada as the bald wife Yoshioka and Kikue Mouri as an ornery nun also make memorable impressions.
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio and is offered in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. Sharpness is very good to excellent throughout the presentation (the booklet details the problematic first reel where most of the artifacts are housed), and the grayscale is well above average even if black levels are not the deepest. There are some scratches and minor spotting glimpsed along the way, but the film’s second half looks particularly striking. The film has been divided into 21 chapters.
Video Rating: 4/5 3D Rating: NA
The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) sound mix is wonderfully free from age-related artifacts like hiss, pops, crackle, and flutter, but as with most foreign films from this period, fidelity isn’t its strong suit, and some of the Japanese music played and sung on the soundtrack is a bit tinny and flat. The Japanese dialogue has been well recorded and comes across well.
Audio Rating: 4/5
Audio Commentary: Japanese film expert Dudley Andrew offers analysis and description for the film’s opening and first flashback sequence (about twenty-eight minutes worth).
Special Features Rating: 3/5
Mizoguchi’s Art and the Demimonde (18:50, HD): an audio essay by Dudley Andrew concentrating on the director’s life and analyses of two of Mizoguchi’s postwar triumphs: The Life of Oharu and Utamaro and His Five Women.
The Travels of Kinuyo Tanaka (31:13, HD): a documentary concerning the controversial three-month good will tour undertaken by leading actress Kinuyo Tanaka in 1949 where she visited and gave performances in Hawaii, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Chicago, and New York.
22-Page Booklet: contains the chapter listing, cast and crew lists, a collection of movie stills, and film professor Gilberto Perez’s critical essay on the film.
Timeline: can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
The Life of Oharu has the same measured pace and beautiful compositions that have distinguished other works by director Kenji Mizoguchi released by the Criterion Collection (Sansho the Bailiff being the most recent). Its intriguing support for its beleaguered title character makes it a rather fascinating cinematic experience. Recommended!
Overall Rating: 4/5
Reviewed By: Matt Hough
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