A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952)

Kinuyo Tanaka in The Life of Oharu
Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) is by turns a lover, a concubine, a courtesan, a servant, a wife, a prostitute, and a nun, which in the 17th-century Japan of Kenji Mizoguchi's film is almost everything a woman could possibly be. But Tanaka's great performance individualizes Ohara, keeping her from just being a representative figure, a stand-in for Woman. Over the course of the film, Oharu suffers almost every indignity that could be inflicted on her: At the court in Kyoto where she is a lady in waiting, she falls in love with a page, Katsunosuke (Toshiro Mifune), but when their affair is discovered, she and her parents are expelled and he is beheaded. One day a courtier for a powerful feudal lord comes to the village where they are exiled: The lord is in need of an heir, and his wife is barren. Oharu fits his rather exacting specifications to the letter, so she is brought to his palace where she bears him a son, but she's not allowed to nurse the child and is expelled from the household by his jealous wife. She goes to work as a courtesan to pay off the debts incurred by her greedy father (Ichiro Sugai), takes a job as maid to a woman who suspects her of sleeping with her husband, marries a man who is killed by robbers, and becomes a Buddhist nun but is expelled from the temple for supposedly seducing a man who was actually trying to rape her. Years pass and she loses her beauty and now walks the streets to earn money to survive, but she is subjected to scorn and mockery as a "goblin cat" by a man leading a group of young pilgrims. Hope dawns when she is summoned to meet her son, who has succeeded his father as lord, but it turns out that the officials in the court really want to cover up the fact that their lord's mother has been a prostitute, so she runs away after only a brief and distant glimpse of him. At the end she wanders the streets as an itinerant nun receiving alms in exchange for prayers -- her prostitution is now spiritual rather than physical. It's easy to take a synopsis like this and dismiss the story as "lachrymose as a soap opera," and "a reverse Horatio Alger adventure," as a particularly obtuse New York Times review did when The Life of Oharu was first released in the United States in 1964. It is neither of those things, of course. Even the Times reviewer was struck by Tanaka's performance, Mizoguchi's direction, and Yoshimi Hirano's cinematography, without understanding how or why these elevate the story into art. The story comes from a 17th-century novel by Ihara Saikaku, The Life of an Amorous Woman, a work far more erotic and picaresque than the melancholy screenplay Mizoguchi and co-screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda derived from it. The Life of Oharu is unremittingly grim -- it put me in mind of the novels of Thomas Hardy, whose characters suffer more than seems absolutely necessary for the author to make his point about the workings of fate. But the film is not about suffering; it's about strength, and women's strength in particular.  

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