I can pretend to talk about Kenji Mizoguchi as if I have long been aware of him as a filmmaker. The fact is that I discovered his work and his great artistry simultaneously and serendipitously barely four days ago. Until August 28, Kenji Mizoguchi was non-existent for me. No longer.
There is unusual joy in discovering someone and instantly celebrating their obvious genius. I found Mizoguchi on Hulu as part of their free Criterion collection offering. It was the minimalist austerity of the image of a woman in the poster that drew me. The accompanying description was adequate but it was the asceticism of the image that did it for me. The film ‘The Life of Oharu’, like all things stereotypically Japanese in my mind, is a precisely arranged experience. Unfolding within its sharply manicured frames is the life of a woman called Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka). More than anything else I was struck by how brilliantly Mizoguchi and his cinematographers Yoshimi Hirano and Yoshimi Kono position the patriarchal oppression of women in the 17th century Japan inside an exquisitely clutter-free ambience. The neatness of the surroundings contrasts disturbingly with the oppressive nature of its subject where Oharu goes through her life through a series of problems.
Conditioned as our minds are by the frenzies of the 21st century life, watching the measured pace of the film, not to mention the measured steps that all its characters walk in, requires some mental adjustment. For me it is somewhat unsettling that such physical orderliness that Japan is so famous for, albeit deliberately devoid of too many objects, can hide so much oppression. Mizoguchi packs the film with various manifestations of male chauvinism, sexism and piggishness all of which crash against Oharu’s tenacious but much reviled and ravaged existence as a prostitute. The film begins with Oharu and others of her profession ruing the fate of ageing prostitutes. It is bad enough to be a prostitute and then it is compounded by advancing age when male clients increasingly find faults with their bodies.
Mizoguchi’s reputation as a director who had a special understanding of women is there all across the film. His Oharu, frequently trampled upon by the prevailing social order, never seems to lose her essence as a person and, more importantly, as a woman. From her life as a courtesan to someone chosen to bear an heir for the local nobleman Lord Matsudaira and from an uprooted woman of beauty of whom many men take advantage to someone committing herself to the Buddha, it is quite a sweep.
It was perhaps because of the utter neatness of the framing that I kept thinking of Satyajit Ray’s ‘Charulata’ throughout watching “The Life of Oharu.” I found out that Ray came to know of Mizoguchi as a filmmaker after he himself had become a filmmaker. The Life of Oharu’s visual pace is quite like the way its many kimono-clad women walk—in tiny steps which when hurried make it seem like they are struggling to defy some invisible shackles. Class consciousness is pervasive throughout the film where those of lower ranks or at lower station in life forever seem bent in obsequiousness.
Soon after watching the first few minutes of the film I felt like digitally painting my own version of Oharu. Here it is. I painted it in color but for your edification I have also given you its black and white version.
Oharu by MC