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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Saikaku Ichidai Onna (Life of Oharu)


The more I learn about Japanese directors the more I become puzzled about their body of work and the more I wish I was able to absorb all of them in a few movies. But that is impossible as I am finding more and more interesting and key information about an era that produced magnificent movies and incredible directors.

Then I think that less than two weeks ago I was wishing to get into an unknown world, today I have seen at least one movie by each of these directors Naruse and Ozu. I extensively knew one director Akira Kurosawa, whom I consider an extraordinary filmmaker. Now I understand that during those decades there was more than Kurosawa and that the Japanese studios era played a major role in facilitating the creation of extraordinary cinema.

This time is Kenji Mizoguchi. This is a different kind of director and probably the most interesting to me as many of his movies are about women and his outcry against the brutalization of women by Japanese society. I am quoting a film critic: “In his films women are stronger than men, partly it’s because suffering strengthens them. It’s the injustice of the suffering to which Mizoguchi kept returning in a long string of films ranging from Osaka Elegy to Street of Shame. In film after film, Mizoguchi conveyed social and emotional tempests boiling beneath immaculately formal surfaces”. This quote makes me even more curious to see more Mizoguchi’s films.

Seems like the early ‘50s decade was difficult for Mizoguchi as his work was barely appreciated in Japan (unlike Ozu’s popularity) and the filming of Life of Oharu was uphill from the beginning as was hard to find funds and hard to film as due to budget constrains he had to use a warehouse instead of a studio’s regular sound stage. The story of the harsh times to film this movie is as fascinating as the story the film tells. Even with all the limitations Mizoguchi managed to create a movie that most critics and movie historians consider a masterpiece that turned around his career and life (he even tuned down his drinking).

To quote another critic: “This is a portrait of a 17th century woman’s repeated humiliation by her patriarchal society and is devastating from beginning to end, but its genius is not so much Mizoguchi’s caustic criticism of a money-obsessed society’s refusal to acknowledge its accountability for her degradation, but that Mizoguchi uses Oharu’s life to peel back layers of the physical self and reveal the soul that lies bruised beneath”. Absolutely agree.

This 1952 film tells the story of Oharu that went from a lady-in-waiting in the imperial court in Kyoto to a street prostitute due to a series of the most unfortunate circumstances triggered since she falls in love with a lower rank man, Katsunosuke played by a very young Toshirô Mifune. But what I call the “most unfortunate circumstances” is no other than the traditions of a society that places women in the lowest possible rank.

The story is an adaptation from the Tokugawa shogunate-era novel Koshoku Ichidai Onna (Life of an Amorous Woman) by Saikaku Ihara (1686) and Mizoguchi started to write this screenplay before the WWII and during the American occupation it was impossible that studios will film this movie, so he had to wait after the Americans left to be able to start production.

This film went to represent Japan at the 1952 Venice film festival and Mizoguchi won the International Award and was nominated for the Golden Lion.

Mizoguchi technique is impressive with his long takes and highly controlled camera producing an hypnotic film.

If in 1952 when the movie was released in Japan, Japanese audiences did not embraced this movie because among other things it was too long, nowadays I think that only western audiences that like oeuvres of art and/or are interested in women stories could really enjoy this movie.

One of the most amazing women stories and movies I have ever seen. Most recommended to every woman in the world.

I have to share with you that learning about this movie and Mizoguchi work helped me to understand even more the intention behind Hou’s Café Lumière and realize the amazing evolution of women’s role within Japanese society.

Last I have to admit that I remembered watching this movie before. Then I like it, but now under a different context, life stage and with this Japanese cycle I have immersed into, I like it a lot more.

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