Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1952 film classic is adapted from the 17th century novel The Life of an Amorous Woman by Ihara Saikaku, but it resonates with an emotional maturity that results in a work of timeless drama.
The film opens with the 50-year-old street prostitute Oharu, played with extraordinary subtlety by Kinuyo Tanaka, recalling the circumstances that led to her degradation. As a young woman, she held a position of prestige as a lady in waiting at the Kyoto imperial court, but an affair with a page from a considerably lower social ranking (played by Toshiro Mifune) results in his execution and the banishment of Oharu and her parents. Over the years, Oharu descends in status to concubine, then courtesan, then housemaid until reaching the level of street prostitute.
The Life of Oharu is a work of great emotional tragedy, and the outward stoicism that Oharu presents in the face of her deteriorating status in the rigid Japanese society barely conceals the misogyny and hypocrisy of that nation’s feudal hierarchy. This film is also a work of innovative visual style, with a sharp production design and handsome black-and-white cinematography. The pristine presentation in The Criterion Collection’s handsome high-definition restoration allows viewers to truly appreciate the genius of Mizoguchi’s vision, which was badly compromised in the crummy public domain prints that circulated for too many years.
The new Criterion Collection DVD offering also includes a rarely-seen documentary on Tanaka’s 1949 goodwill tour of the United States, plus two audio essays by film scholar Dudley Andrew.