Kenji Mizoguchi's long-suffering heroine in The Life of Oharu (1952) endures so much misery in such swift succession that the effect is numbing, if not, in a few instances, grimly comical. Although the film seems rooted in melodrama, it's elaborate staging, weird pictorial effects, and fantastically beautiful camera-work have the effect of distancing us from the story. There are two kinds of distance that an audience can experience: Homeric epic distance that signifies the ultimate indifference of the world to our suffering or the distance that we feel from a pathetic tale in which we really don't have a stake. Although Mizoguchi's film, for the most part, inspires the first sort of distance, the picture walks a tight-rope between the two species of alienation or Verfremdung (to use Brecht's term) and, more then once, knocks us into the second mode: it's tough to have sympathy for a punching bag.
Set in 1686, the film chronicles various misfortunes that befall an attractive young woman who lives with her middle-class family in Kyoto. The film is derived from a picaresque novel, probably a Japanese variant on John Cleland's Fanny Hill -- I have the sense that the source material is probably cheerfully erotic, cynical, and satiric. (Certainly, some of the episodes suggest a kind of grotesque humor of the kind we find in Gogol.) On film, the narrative is mostly very dire and would be unbearable except for Mizoguchi's tendency to make his heroine's suffering so abstractly beautiful and remote that it resembles an exquisitely calligraphic folding screen narrative -- vignettes set in gracefully realized natural settings in which the camera tracks the action, generally at long-range or middle distance. (I don't think there are any close-ups in the movie.) Oharu, a lady of a feudal court, falls in love with a low level retainer, a kid who works for a local samurai -- the boy is played by the tigerish Toshiro Mifune. The love affair is disclosed and the girl, with her family, is banished from Kyoto. (Her father is a samurai but ends up haplessly dealing in silk fabric.) The lover is beheaded. He sends Oharu a scroll admonishing her to never marry except for love. We expect this scroll to have decisive role in the action but it doesn't -- Oharu ends up giving herself away on just about every motive except for love. A famous beauty, she is sought as a concubine for a feudal ruler in Edo -- the War Lord's wife is unable to conceive and Oharu is imported to supply the clan with an heir. (This part of the story is a kind of reverse and sinister Cinderella story -- the clan leader has specifications for the woman that he seeks and a harried retainer has to inspect hundreds of Kyoto beauties before he finds Oharu.) As soon as her child is born, the baby is taken from her and Oharu, who is despised by the war lord's wife, is sent back to her parents who live in a cottage in the woods outside Kyoto. Her father has banked upon Oharu's success as a concubine and over-extended himself in purchases of silk. In debt, he sells Oharu to a brothel in a bad part of town called Shiwabura. She gets mixed-up with a wealthy man who wants to buy her from the brothel-keeper but he turns out to be a counterfeiter and is promptly beheaded himself. Oharu is hired as a domestic servant in a well-to-do middle-class household -- here, her chief duty is to dress the hair of her mistress, a woman who has lost most of lustrous black tresses in an illness. Oharu is suspected of attempting to seduce the woman's husband. Willful and, often, cruel herself, Oharu trains a cat to snatch the wife's wig, exposing her bald pate to her husband, and, needless to say, is expelled from this household. We next see her making fans and happily married. Her husband goes off on business and is immediately killed by bandits. Oharu, then, joins a Buddhist convent. The merchant with the bald wife comes to the convent and rapes her. When this becomes known to the nuns, Oharu is once again homeless. She takes up with a young man who has previously shown an interest in her -- he is a thief and her bad luck is such as to result in his immediate arrest and, presumably, execution. Forced into working as a streetwalker, Oharu is, finally, summoned to the court to meet her son, the prince that she produced with the War Lord. But, her bad reputation precedes her and she is summarily dismissed. The film is bracketed by a frame narrative -- we see Oharu as a kind of staggering ghost wandering among great walls and dismal temples in Kyoto: she's fifty and has been insulted by her client, an old man himself, for painting her face to pretend to be younger. She squats in the shadows with several other washed-up prostitutes and, then, enters a temple where there are a host of Bodhisattva figures carved in wood and ranked along the walls. (This is a reprise of the beginning of the film in which one of the Buddha figures reminds her of Toshiro Mifune, her first lover, and this triggers the flashback that comprises the bulk of the film. At the film's end, we see her again -- wandering in the twilight, a dim, shrouded figure singing a song about the impermanence of the world. To Western ears, her song is tuneless, a quavering lament, punctuated by percussive and dissonant notes played on the koto. Mizoguchi's sense for landscape is so powerful that you can almost feel the November chill quivering in the barren trees where the mendicant nun wanders outside the formidably grim and massive city walls.
It's not clear to me what the film is supposed signify. Presumably, there is a Buddhist sense that life is suffering, indeed, a kind of protracted and gloomy misery that doesn't even rise to the level of tragedy. Two episodes are grotesquely humorous and, therefore, stunning -- the one involves the bald housewife and the other dealer in falsely minted coin. The counterfeiter pitches coin on the floor and revels in watching people abjectly wrestle with one another for the money: he proclaims that money is God and, then, is unmasked as a criminal who has minted the false coin himself. (One characteristic of the film is that nemesis strikes immediately, without warning -- in one instant, someone is luxuriating in pleasure and proclaiming his or her happiness: in the next ten seconds, however, fortune will reverse.) As the counterfeiter praises God-money, a crowd of armed men appear and he flees. The sequence illustrates Mizoguchi's tendency to follow the action by elaborate tracking and craning shots -- the gambler runs from the room and the camera, surprising pulls back to show the whole brothel; the fleeing man darts through rooms full of brightly clad women, then, down some steps into a courtyard where he charges toward the moving camera before he is brought to ground. It's an explosive and spectacular scene tracking the man from his arrogant joy through his abject doom, all in one 20 second shot. Mizoguchi's positioning of the camera is counter-intuitive and, indeed, often very surprising. When Oharu and her family are banished from Kyoto, we see them crossing a bridge in the gloom -- the film shows us things occurring in a kind of perpetual and eerie twilight. The camera drops down from the bridge to beneath the span and, then, we see the exiled family walking to the right on the river bank but below the brutal black pier of the bridge span that cuts diagonally across the upper third of the image. By placing the camera under the bridge, Mizoguchi can use that span itself to comment on the action, indeed, to impose a foreboding black band hovering over the refugees. It's a stunning image that communicates on all levels.
The Life of Oharu is the first of three films that made Mizoguchi famous in the West, Ugestsu Monogaturi (1953) and the terrifying and savage Sansho the Bailiff (1954) followed. It is a great achievement but so absurdly deterministic that it's a little bit funny -- the film reminds me of de Sade's Justine in which the heroine gets raped and beaten on just about every page. At one point, Oharu watches a Bunraku puppet theater presentation -- we see elaborately dressed geisha puppets manipulated by impassive men, a metaphor, I think, for how Mizoguchi sees his heroine and her fate.