Mizoguchi for Her: Woman in ‘The Life of Oharu’

Milo Garner takes a look at the celebrated Japanese director’s feminist legacy.

Kenji Mizoguchi, born in 1898, was a giant of Japanese cinema. Active from the 1920s, he made his breakthrough in 1936 with Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion. These films, sometimes considered in the genre of ‘new realism’, centred on wronged women in a male-dominated society. As written by Gilberto Perez, ‘women in Mizoguchi are consistently central and consistently portrayed with a sympathy that has no need for idealization.’ Japan’s intense conservatism in this period marks this as especially surprising, though he was not alone. Fellow director Mikio Naruse also concerned himself with the plight of the modern woman, and Yasujiro Ozu too, while more traditional thematically, depicted women in a deeply sympathetic light. A popular counterpoint to Mizoguchi might ironically be found in the Western-influenced Akira Kurosawa, whose women are typically stuck between wickedness and weakness, sidelined in male-led stories.

Mizoguchi’s apparent proto-feminism has, however, been criticized in a personal context. A frequenter of brothels (though not exclusively for sex), he was once described as ‘fond of sake and women – too fond of women.’ After living with a call girl for some time, he was admitted to hospital with a deep gash in his back, which she had given him with a razor. On the incident he later claimed, ‘you can’t understand women unless you’ve got something like this to show.’ The apparent contradiction between Mizoguchi’s personal conduct and filmic preoccupations has sometimes been interpreted as a form of expiation. His personal interest in opposing Japan’s heavy patriarchy – regardless of his hand in it – may be more historical than that: in Mizoguchi’s youth his sister, Suzu, was sold into geishadom by his father (an event mirrored in The Life of Oharu). It seems likely this event had a profound impact on his outlook on life, and was an injustice his films attempted to confront.

By the end of the Second World War, Mizoguchi’s reputation had waned in Japan. His films were considered old-fashioned in style, especially when compared to his up-and-coming rival in Kurosawa. The 1950s came as a second breakthrough point for the director, particularly with The Life of Oharu itself. Released in 1952, it was the first of his films to be screened at an international film festival – Venice, specifically. Here it was received rapturously by European critics, particularly the Cahiers du Cinema. Jean-Luc Godard said of the film: ‘as foreign as Mizoguchi’s language and culture may be, he spoke the language of mise-en-scène. And anyone who loves cinema could not help but understand it and be moved by it.’ It was awarded the silver lion (bested by Kurosawa’s Rashomon for the top prize), and his two subsequent films, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, would win the same award in 1953 and 1954. The Life of Oharu was also a success in Japan, reviving not only Mizoguchi’s career but that of its lead actress, Kinuyo Tanaka, who would go on to become Japan’s first female director one year later. Critic Jonathon Rosenbaum, writing in 1974, considers this no coincidence. For him, The Life of Oharu ‘comprises the most powerful feminist protest ever recorded on film.’

The film began its life during the shooting of Utamaro and his Five Women in 1946, at which point Mizoguchi and regular screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda began work on an adaptation of Ihara Saikaku’s 1686 The Life of an Amorous Women. Saikaku was a famed Japanese poet and author, responsible for the ‘floating world’ genre of Japanese prose. He was also famously prolific, having allegedly composed over 23,000 haikai stanzas over the course of a single night in 1677. His Amorous Woman was primarily work of satire, set around an anonymous prostitute who would tell tales of her life for coin. It is told in first-person and focuses on the lewd and erotic, a biting social critique lingering close to the surface. The eponymous amorous women is the daughter of a samurai, and as such begins as a lady of some stature, but after falling in love with a lowly page (and consummating that love), she is exiled from Kyoto. From here she falls across the social strata, becoming a concubine, a geisha, and a nun – among other things – across the novel’s length. The satirical potential is evident.

The Life of Oharu, while surprisingly faithful to much of the content, is notably contrary to its source material in tone. Described by Dudley Andrew as a ‘pure and unremitting example’ of the suffering of women, it abandons comedy for a deeply affective melodrama, following the tragic decline of a woman in society. Mark Le Fanu considers Mizoguchi’s version ‘an effort to humanize, or deepen, Saikaku,’ with its central character ‘endowed with a soul.’ Notably the version of the script first submitted to the censorship board in 1948 – and declined – was more satirical and featured far less pathos. Whether the script accepted in 1951 was a tempered edition of the original or indeed a reconsideration by Mizoguchi is unclear, but makes for a drastically different product. Filming took place in 1951. Mizoguchi directed with near dictatorial presence: he would avoid leaving the set unless absolutely necessary, employing the use of a urinal bottle when need be, and would be consistently unreasonable in the pursuit of his art, firing crew on a whim. His regular set designer, Hiroshi Mitzutani, is perhaps the undersung keystone to Mizoguchi’s production, building authentic and complex sets to accommodate for Mizoguchi’s intricate camera movements and the crane accompanying them. Takana immersed herself completely in the role of Oharu, which at this point in her career was very much against type, helped by the utilization of actual antiques throughout the production. The stage was very much set for what would become one of Mizoguchi’s finest achievements, a searingly beautiful examination of the suffering of a woman under a cruel patriarchy. But how women are represented in The Life of Oharu deserves further scrutiny.

The camera of Mizoguchi is, from the first frames of Oharu, essential in understanding its thematic direction. The first shot of the film tracks a woman walking alone, her face set away from the lens. The initial line of dialogue identifies this as Oharu, but it is the camera that has set her as the progenitor of the story, her movement motivating the cinematic space as much as it will the following narrative. Mizoguchi’s camera is unique in style, often compared to the floating world of woodprint art; particularly to that of Kitagawa Utamaro, with whom Mizoguchi felt an artistic kinship. Distant long-takes from a high angle are the basis for this style, with the camera tracking and panning across Mitzutani’s sets. This is complimented by theatrical and kinetic acting, comparable to Kurosawa’s style in its Kabuki origins. Starting with 1948’s Women of the Night this style was tempered with what some have suggested (such as Noel Burch) may be Western sensibilities, such as the use of shot/reverse shot on occasion, though others have argued this is related to technical limitations in ever-more complicated sets. One element that remains is the interaction of the camera-as-narrator to the diegesis. Contrary to the classical Hollywood style, designed to imply the viewing of an objective reality via an invisible camera, Mizoguchi’s camera is granted an agency of narration that isn’t at all concealed. That the camera might reveal elements of a scene, or focus in on a certain area, is displayed as a third-person exploration of the narrative. As explained by Chiharu Mukudai, ‘the narration of Mizoguchi’s films is inscribed within the text by obvious camera movements.’

This camera movement is used to reveal key thematic elements of the film. One of the initial scenes of Oharu’s extended flashback features an admirer, Katsunosuke, appearing outside, having misled her into believing she would be met by a man of higher stature than himself. The camera, positioned inside the house, tracks on Katsunosuke as he attempts to win Oharu’s favour from outside, following him as he opens several shogi doors; he is creating vulnerability both literally and metaphorically. Oharu’s eyes are averted, as Andrew points out: ‘if they look at each other she is lost.’ She eventually does look, and so falls into Katsunosuke’s arms – a secret love reciprocated, it appears. The camera has by now followed them to a funerary garden outside, and here Oharu faints. Katsunosuke carries her out of frame, and the camera tilts down, two grave markers creeping further into the now empty frame as it does. Between these lies Oharu’s slipper – an omen for the life she has now unwittingly abandoned, and the doom she and Katsunosuke will face.

Shortly after this incident the two are accosted at a sort of brothel, and sentenced – Oharu to exile, Katsunosuke to death. Katsunosuke’s death scene concludes with a similar downward tilt, here focused on the executioner’s sword; a synthesis of these two shots is established in a third, Oharu’s death run. After discovering Katsunosuke’s fate, and reading a letter from him that encouraged her to marry for nothing but love, she runs into a bamboo grove, her mother on her heels. The camera tracks her run for over a minute, as she tries to kill herself with a knife. She fails, but the resting frame again features two grave markers in the background. Her death will not be physical like Katsunosuke’s, but it will be perhaps as severe. That both might suffer in such a way indicts the classicist feudal state in which they live; that Oharu might live, but a life of suffering, foreshadows the irreversible consequences a woman might be subject to, even if she is not killed outright.

The camera also uses perspective and angle to convey the film’s substance. An example of the former is in Oharu’s positioning relative to other family members. Shortly after her exile she is seen approaching her new home, her mother on the veranda and her father within. These three distinct dimensions of the frame are clearly designated as separate, suggesting the distance between Oharu’s father and herself, both physically and emotionally. In a later scene featuring a potential suitor this is reversed, with Oharu in the background and her father occupying the foreground, her mother again separating the two between. Relative to the scene, the father always occupies the position of power, feeding into the general tone of male dominance throughout the form and content of Oharu. The use of angles is also key, particularly regarding bridges. Prior to the flashback, we see Oharu as a prostitute taking refuge under a bridge. A holy man looks down on them from above – a clear representation of the social stratum Oharu finds herself in. This is a shot reflected later in the film, after Oharu is banished from Kyoto in flashback. The camera tracks across the bridge as Oharu crosses, the angle growing lower as she reaches the other side. Then, in a single graceful movement, the camera pushes below the bridge and peers at the exiles travelling beyond it. The camera has, in this instance, taken the point of view Oharu will eventually occupy, implying a future already established in the narrative. Like Oharu, the film often finds itself in descent.

However, as abovementioned Mizoguchi’s style had wavered since its zenith in The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums in 1939 and The 47 Ronin two years later. By the 1950s there were many more instances of shot/reverse shot, and one of Oharu’s crucial moments is captured in this manner. Shortly before the commencement of the flashback that will encompass most of the film, she enters a Buddhist temple filled with Gohyaku rakan statues. Here she fixes upon one, and sees the face of her lover, Katsunosake, which induces her to remember all that had led her to where she now was. This interaction is captured from both Oharu’s point of view and the statue’s. In an interesting subversion, Oharu is the subject in this scene, and the statue (and, by extension, Katsunosuke) the object. Robert N. Cohen argues, via Laura Mulvey, that the use of shot/reverse shot is generally an extension of an inherent patriarchy in classical filmmaking. Women are almost always the passive object, and men the active subjects. Though this scene does subvert that theme, it is an exception in the film.

Cohen’s position holds that, while sympathetic, Mizoguchi is more disparaging to women than many acknowledge, in form and content. For example, Oharu’s daydream could be interpreted as an extension of the trope that holds women as hysteric and psychologically unstable. That this daydream finishes with a dramatic faint, one of many in the film, supports this notion. This can be countered by the suggestion that such histrionics are essential to the melodramatic form, but this is Cohen’s point. That genre, and many other elements of The Life of Oharu, are built on an inherently patriarchal framework. While Cohen’s argument is not inherently incorrect, its utility must be questioned contextually. The Life of Oharu is not radical feminist cinema, and that expectation should not be placed upon it. Mizoguchi was a mainstream director working in Japan during the 1950s; his work reflects this, even if it does subvert elements of the society in which it was created. It is unlikely that Mizoguchi would have defined himself as a feminist in the modern sense, or even that he believed in the equality of the sexes. Rather, the content of Oharu speaks to a sympathetic humanism core to much of his ideology.

The question of passive object against active subject pervades the film in other ways. Beyond simple questions of the male or female gaze, the men of the film ‘initiate the actions… carry on the way of the world… [and] are suited for action [and] progress,’ according to Dudley and Paul Andrew. Though Oharu has some moments of agency, she is by and large considered and treated as an object by the men who surround her. This, however, seems to be part of the point. While Oharu is not an empowering film by any means, that it presents a realistic world that portrays women as they were, or indeed are, treated is the very basis of its text. More curious is Oharu herself – is she an individual woman, or simply ‘woman’ in general? The basis of the film’s story lends itself to the latter, with Oharu occupying a cross-section of social roles across Japanese society from opening to closing. While some have identified as many as ten separate positions, the film implies eight distinct sections, each divided by a fade transition; this conclusion is supported by the eight headshots of Tanaka featured on an original poster.

Mukudai goes further than this, suggesting that Oharu herself is not written a psychology that might allow her to be considered a particularly complex character. This feeds into a more general theory that links to Mizoguchi’s change of style in the 1950s, here suggesting that his later films are defined by an ‘absent cause’. As writes Mukudai via Kinoshita, ‘events cannot be anticipated before they occur and cannot be rationalized until the following scene is given as the consequence of the events.’ He notes that Oharu is quick to identify with any social role she is given, and some of her actions, such as her decision to become devoted to Daimyo Matsudaira during her stint as concubine, cannot be justified by any evident psychology. His argument is strengthened via Carole Cavanaugh, who compares Oharu to Ayako, the protagonist of Osaka Elegy. Ayako, who might be quickly described as a ‘modern woman’, has a consistent identity as ‘an “unwritten text” which leaks from the “prewritten” social texts that determine her destiny.’ Oharu, on the other hand, only resists her later ‘prewritten’ texts due to her attachment to her first position in society, which she longs to return to.

While it is certainly true that Oharu is a less psychologically interesting character than those of Mizoguchi’s earlier films, and that this is reflected in other later films of Mizoguchi (such as 1954’s The Crucified Lovers), Oharu is not governed by such an ‘absent cause’ as suggested. The basis for much of her action seems to be focused on Katsunosake’s dying wish that she find love. This is an idea that might explain her intention to become Matsudaira’s lover, but also her continued efforts to discover and contact her child with him after she is cast out. A very brief spell of happiness in the middle of the film, in which she is married to a kindly fan merchant, seems to distil the point Mizoguchi was making through Katsunosuke: that, in finding genuine love, women might be spared from the worst of patriarchy. It’s hardly an ideal solution, as is made clear across the film – upon the fan merchant’s death Oharu is again left in misery – and certainly not feminist by a modern definition. But, in the context of the film, it is certainly reasonable. Cohen finds further issue with the conduct of Oharu, though in his mind she is presented not as psychologically empty, but as a narcissist. While Katsunosuke died with the hope that society might change, Oharu spends the rest of her days simply reaching for happiness; it’s likely that if she could regain her former position, she would. Cohen considers this tacit support of the patriarchy, at least at a structural level. This theme might well be identified in the film’s narrative. While playing samisen for coin on the street Oharu spots a palanquin going by. The initial suggestion is regressive – early in the film she is seen carried in one. But it is then revealed that she is not looking to her past, but the future, as her son is revealed from its interior. Cohen perhaps expects too much of Oharu, and values too heavily the words of a man in no position to execute them.

The Life of Oharu also considers another notable concern for women, both in its 17th century setting and contemporary release – that of appearance. In the first shot of the film, which tracks on Oharu, she is veiled and keeps herself unseen; the camera respects her dignity. Not long after, it is remarked that ‘a woman of fifty can’t make herself look twenty,’ as Oharu tells her friends of an episode with an old man earlier that day. This man had approached her, and apparently wishing to solicit her illicit service taken her to a dingy building. Here, he revealed her to his students, telling them not to fall foul of the temptations of the flesh – they age poorly. When this scene is later shown in flashback, the humour of Oharu’s retelling is replaced by an intense pathos. That a woman treated with such immorality should be used as a moral lesson is difficult to watch, but also a relevant comment on society. As written by Mark Le Fanu, this is ‘the double-edged spell of female beauty: that, for a beautiful woman who has fallen from caste, there is not escape from the flesh.’ While in her position as a lady of the court her beauty was admired, but never expected, as soon as she is considered ‘fallen’ male-dominated society considers her differently.

A nun at one point tells Oharu, ‘all is truly impermanent in this world,’ but that is untrue – her past is indelible. Consider Jihei, the merchant who takes Oharu in during a time of struggle. He is kindly and respectful, until he discovers she had been a geisha. At this point he becomes lascivious, remarking on how ‘naughty’ Oharu must be, making sexual passes; finally, and predictably, he rapes her. Despite her conduct in the present, her actions of the past – generally beyond her control – dictate her fate. It should be noted that the men of Oharu are not presented as particularly evil. As Roger Ebert writes in his review, ‘Mizoguchi makes no attempt to portray any male character as a self-aware villain. The men behave within the boundaries set for them and expected of them by the traditions of their society.’ It is this society that Mizoguchi rails against. Even the women, such as Jihei’s wife, often find themselves enabling it. Yet she is also a victim – having lost her hair during a bout of illness, she hides her baldness from her husband. She fears that should he find out, she might be cast out, or lose favour. Her appearance is essential to her stake in society – by the time Oharu’s fades, so does any chance of her climbing that ladder.

Yet so long as it survives, she is commodified to an almost comedic extent, with Daimyo Matsudaira’s requirements for his concubine being so exact as to include ‘detached, translucent lobes.’ Even her uterus undergoes this treatment. A servant corrects her after she says she has given birth: ‘you’ve been “allowed to give birth.”’ Rosenbaum describes it as ‘a materialist analysis – a depiction of women treated, traded, valued, degraded, and discarded as material object,’ and in that he is correct. In fact, the only moments Oharu might feel some sense of safety are those in which she is veiled. Mukudai notes that the fall of her veil often coincides with victimization in some way. Her veil falls before she enters her long flashback; before Katsunosake seduces her; before Jihei rapes her. By the time her beauty does fade, the scenery reflects this: a dilapidated wall forms the architectural centre of what appears to be a red-light district. Her fellow fallen women seem to take some solace in their position, in that they are now free from stringent female responsibility. ‘We’ve fallen this far. Might as well do what we want,’ says one.

The final shot of the film is significant, and has been interpreted in several ways. After attempting to see her son, and being threatened with restriction to the late Matsudaira’s court, she absconds and becomes a mendicant. The camera tracks her as it did in the first shot, and stops as she does, praying for a moment to a pagoda in the distant background. She begins to move again, but the camera permits her to leave the frame – her ordeal is done. Audie Bock takes the position that this represents the end of a spiritual journey to transcendence, and that she has suffered enough to cast away her social identity and discover a greater truth. Her prayer, according to Bock, is one for humanity. Mukudai takes issue with this conclusion, seeing Oharu’s lack of agency throughout as an inherent contradiction to the ‘spiritual journey’ Bock implies. Cohen introduces a valid consideration when he discusses the desexualization of Oharu by this final shot. She is now dressed in ambiguous clothing, and presumably sexless given her new occupation. As said by Mary Ann Doane, ‘in a patriarchal society, to desexualize the female body is ultimately to deny its very existence.’ Here we see Oharu’s only escape is to totally disown her identity – not only her personal history, but her womanhood. In doing this, we might hope Oharu finds some modicum of peace.

The Life of Oharu was released in 1952.

Recommended Articles


  1. The white haired man with the film camera was not Mizoguchi Kenji.
    He was director Naruse Mikio.

    1. Right you are, the perils of trusting a quick Google search. Thanks for pointing it out, I’ve put (what hopefully is) an actual photograph of Mizoguchi in its place.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *