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Friday, October 25, 2013

The Life of Oharu (1952) d. Kenzo Mizoguchi

Kinuyo Tanaka plays Oharu in The Life of Oharu d. Kenzo Mizoguchi (1952)

Movie Review
The Life of Oharu (1952)
 d. Kenzo Mizoguchi
Criterion Collection #664
Criterion Collection released July 9th, 2013

  Another classic Japanese film from the 1950s, another total bummer night.  The Life of Oharu is about the fall and fall of a 16th century Japanese courtesan/prostitute. The director is Kenzo Mizoguchi, a contemporary of Kurosawa in the great Japanese art house break out period of the early 1950s.  Mizoguchi's next film, Ugetsu (1953) won at the Venice film festival.  Unlike Kurosawa, Mizoguchi was in the twilight of his career in the post-war period.  His filmography reveals dozens of films from the 20s all the way through and during World War II.  During the 1920s, he was averaging over five titles a year.

 The Life of Oharu, in addition to being a player in the growth of the international audience for Japanese film, was also what the film maker considered his finest work.  If Kurosawa rose to prominence by combining Japanese traits with insights garnered from Western films, Mizoguchi is an example of a more purely "Japanese" film sensibility.

 There are none of the quick cuts or innovative framing techniques of 50s Kurosawa.  Instead there are tons of very long takes and a mastery of what is called 'mise en scene': the design elements of film production.  Telling a story that takes place in the 16th century, Mizoguchi convincingly depicts that era down to the details on the human carried carriages that were used for elite travel during the period.

 Even knowing how well The Life of Oharu went over with the international film crowd, and taking into account its positive attribute; The Life of Oharu is what I would call a tough watch.  Black and white, slow paced editing, two hours plus run time, and utterly depressing subject matter with little or no redemption at the end.  Mizoguchi obviously sympathizes with poor Oharu, but his sympathy doesn't earn her much within the film.  The Life of Oharu has no rise, just a steady fall from beginning to end.

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