The concept of mono no aware is one deeply ingrained in Japanese society. In his 1974 book on Yasujiro Ozu, the late Donald Richie defined this intangible state of conscious as "a serene acceptance of the transient world, a gentle pleasure found in mundane pursuits soon to vanish, a content created by the knowledge that one is with the world and that leaving it is, after all, in the natural state of things." It's a cultural condition that has been reflected in the art that's emanated from the East for centuries. In the cinematic realm, the conceit's chief adherents have proven to be (in addition to Ozu, the artistic embodiment of the ideal) Mikio Naruse, Hiroshi Shimizu, Hirokazu Kore-eda, and the early comedic satires and familial dramas of Kon Ichikawa, among others. The characters depicted in the films of Kenji Mizoguchi, by contrast, have no interest in resigning themselves to life's travails. In fact, they seem to be in a constant fight against such inevitabilities. It's what lent Mizoguchi's work such immense gravity, resulting in some of the greatest dramas the medium's ever seen.
The year 1952 would prove to be a watershed for the Japanese master. Two years prior, Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon would effectively introduce Japanese cinema to Western eyes, picking up awards at major festivals while simultaneously piquing interest in other contemporary work being produced in the country. In the wake of this recognition, Mizoguchi's The Life of Oharu would, nearly three decades and 75 films after he began directing features, announce the belated arrival of a veteran embarking on a late-period run of masterpieces arguably yet to be matched in compositional expertise, thematic maturity, or emotional resonance. Mizoguchi himself was reportedly inspired by the emergence of this younger generation of Japanese filmmakers, and his subsequent focus would prove an appropriate metaphor for his characters' steadfast attitude and dogged determination. Here's a man whose faith in cinema manifests itself in a commendable faith in his protagonists, whom he would not forsake and whom may very well have kept him alive—the inverse essence of mono no aware.
For all her courage and conviction, however, Oharu (played by his muse, Kinuyo Tanaka) stands as Mizoguchi's most tortured character. In fact, it's difficult to think of an equivalent for a woman who's adult life devolves so inexorably into degradation, betrayal, abuse, and abandonment, all at the hands of men (her father, her arranged partner) who should act as guardians, if not saviors. (It's notable that the one man who has Oharu's best intentions in mind, an aristocratic suitor played by Toshiro Mifune, is beheaded for attempting to pursue a clandestine marriage outside his class). Mizoguchi thus presents Oharu as something of a martyr, an unfortunate outgrowth of a society rotting from the inside. And yet, The Life of Oharu is one of cinema's great tales of perseverance, a melodrama of high narrative and formal ambition and rich artistic yields. Based on Ihara Saikaku's novel The Life of an Amorous Woman, Mizoguchi and co-screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda's adaptation is both more intimate, focusing solely on the Oharu character, and more expansive, restaging a life across multiple decades of the Edo era and various rural and domestic milieu.
The episodic nature of the narrative belies the seamless transposition of the Oharu arc, outlined as a fall from bourgeois contentment to proletariat survival. It's not a stretch to imagine at various points Oharu standing in for the viewer, her journey from hand maiden to wife to mother to courtesan to prostitute to beggar to finally, nun, an antiquated, if never less than relatable, succession of unforeseen circumstances, societal obligation, and misplaced confidences. Captured in Mizoguchi's fluid, long-take style, which by this point had relented slightly from his early, one-shot/one-scene framework toward a more distilled, intimate rendering of such formal shorthand, The Life of Oharu reconciled most of the major aesthetic advancements made by the director up to that point while furthering his interest in the plight of women, which would find different, equally impressive outlets in the archly allegorical Ugetsu, the feudal slave-trade saga Sansho the Bailiff, and the brothel-set tragedy of futility Street of Shame. Mizoguchi may wisely never romanticizes these characters, rarely ever offering hope, let alone redemption, yet there's a palpable grace in every camera movement, a tangible respect in every composition. Persecuted yet steadfast, Oharu may most purely embody the Mizoguchi protagonist.
The Life of Oharu makes its long-awaited Region 1 digital debut from the Criterion Collection in both DVD and Blu-ray packages. Having seen the restored print that Janus Films has been sporadically touring over the last half-decade, I can safely say that the 1080p transfer is a worthy representation of the surviving elements. The picture, while somewhat soft and exhibiting limitations inherent to the source, is nevertheless very detailed and bright, clearing up much of the shadowy contrast that plagued bootlegs and imports for years. Grain shows up significantly and overall the picture is quite satisfying, betraying its filmic roots while preserving the natural characteristics of the celluloid. Sound, meanwhile, is likewise faithful to the film's origins, presented in a mono LPCM track, impressively devoid of much of the outlying ambiance that can haunt older soundtracks. Dialogue is clear and un-manipulated, while Ichiro Saito's score is expertly mixed and balanced.
Supplemental material is somewhat slight considering the packages Criterion has put together for other Kengi Mizoguchi films, but it's all worthwhile viewing. The highlights of the set are two audio features by film scholar Dudley Andrew. The first, an 18-minute audio essay featuring stills from various Mizoguchi productions, attempts to draw parallels amongst the director's greater filmography, taking particular interest in his 1946 masterpiece, Utamaro and His Five Women, which Dudley explains sowed the seeds for much of the thematic territory Mizoguchi would cover in the early '50s (unfortunately, much of this information may not register for those who haven't seen Utamaro, a distinct possibility as it has yet to arrive on Region 1 DVD). Second, there's a curiously truncated commentary track running over the first 28 minutes of the film. It's well-researched and informative, but a full-length track would be ideal, not to mention warranted. The Travels of Kinuyo Tanaka, a 30-minute documentary about the actress's travels through the U.S. and her encounters with many a Hollywood celebrity, rounds out the video extras. Finally, there's the requisite Criterion booklet appended to the package, featuring an essay on the film by Gilberto Perez.
Nearly three decades and 75 films after he began directing features, Mizoguchi's The Life of Oharu would announce the belated arrival of a veteran embarking on a late-period run of masterpieces yet to be matched in compositional expertise, thematic maturity, or emotional resonance. [Slant]