The Life of Oharu – The Criterion Collection #664 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

July 6, 2013 by  


“The Life of Oharu” is a film that is revered as a masterpiece.  While I feel that I’ve always been biased towards Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu Monogatari” and even “Sansho the Bailiff” because the film offers a glimmer of hope, “The Life of Oharu” may not, but in terms of cinematic style and storyline, the film is still a quintessential Mizoguchi film that cineaste will want to own and have in their collection.  Highly recommended!

Image are courtesy of © 2013  Toho Co.  The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: The Life of Oharu – The Criterion Collection #664


DURATION: 136 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition, 1:37:1 aspect ratio, Black and White, Monaural Japanese with English Subtitles


RELEASE DATE: July 9, 2013

Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi

Based on the Novel “Koshuku Ichidai Onna” by Saikaku Ihara

Written by Kenji Mizoguchi, Yoshikata Yoda

Produced by Hideo Koi, Kenji Mizoguchi

Executive Producer: Isamu Yoshiji

Music by Ichiro Saito

Cinematography by Yoshimi Hirano, Yoshimi Kono

Edited by Toshio Goto

Production Design by Hiroshi Mizutani


Kinuyo Tanaka as Oharu

Tsuki Matsuura as Tomo, Oharu’s Mother

Ichiro Sugai as Shinzaemon, Oharu’s Father

Toshiaki Mifune as Katsunosuke

Toshiaki Konoe as Lord Harutaka Matsudaira

Kiyoki Tsuji as Landlady

Hsiako Yamane as Lady Matsudaira

Jukichi Uno as Yakichi Ogiya

Eitaro Shindo as Kahe Sasaya

A peerless chronicler of the soul who specialized in supremely emotional, visually exquisite films about the circumstances of women in Japanese society, Kenji Mizoguchi had already been directing movies for decades when he made The Life of Oharu in 1952. But this epic portrait of an inexorable fall from grace, starring the astounding Kinuyo Tanaka as an imperial lady-in-waiting who gradually descends to street prostitution, was the movie that gained the director international attention, ushering in a new golden period for him.


From legendary filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi (“Ugetsu”, “Sansho the Bailiff”, “Osaka Elegy”), comes a well-revered masterpiece titled “The Life of Oharu” (Sakaku Ichidai Onna).

The winner of the International Prize at the 1952 Venice International Film Festival and nominated for a Golden Lion, the film is based on stories from Ihara Saikaku’s “The Life of an Amorous Woman”, a novel published back in 1686.

In some aspects, “The Life of Oharu” is a film that was personal for the filmmaker.  At a young age, his family was turned upside down after the Russo-Japanese war and due to family circumstances, his family gave up his eldest sister by having her sold into geishadom.  The treatment of his father towards his mother and sister impacted him.  Suffering from rheumatoid arthritis during his adolescence, led to his sister Suzu helping take care of him.   And so an ongoing theme in his film is about a woman’s suffering, as he saw his sister sacrifice her life to take care of him.

With “The Life of Oharu” and his inspiration of films by Japanese women’s suffrage, he would gain international recognition for his work and Mizoguchi considered “The Life of Oharu” as his best work.

And now “The Life of Oharu” will be released on Blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection in July 2013.

“The Life of Oharu” is a film that is set in 17th Century Japan and focuses on Oharu, a woman who has gone through so much suffering throughout her lifetime.

The film begins with Oharu as an older woman and women asking her how a person of royalty could have fallen so low to work in a brothel.  And the difficulties that an older woman faces at such a old age.  While Oharu doesn’t want to talk about it, she prays before Buddha and begins to think about her past life and what set her life to spiral downwards.

When she was a younger woman, Oharu came from an upperclass family, daughter of a samurai in the Imperial Palace of Kyoto but because she had an affair with a page (lower class), it is a violation of the class rules of Japan.  The punishment is execution for the page and for Oharu’s family, they are punished by exile and eventually lose their family financial stability.

Realizing that breaking such a rule has ended the life of the man she fell in love with and has doomed her parents, Oharu tries to kill herself but is prevented from doing so.  In order to help the family financially, she is sold to become the mistress of Lord Matsudaira and to give birth to an heir.  While she does give birth to a boy, she is sent back home.

Oharu’s father who has spent money on himself purchasing expensive clothing material and is expecting their daughter to come home with good money is shocked to find out that they barely gave her any money to pay for his debt.  He then sells her off to be a courtesan for another but once again, she fails and is sent back home.

Oharu is then sent to serve another family but the wife has a secret of being bald.  When her husband starts taking a like to Oharu, the jealous woman chops off all of Oharu’s hair but in revenge, Oharu reveals the woman’s secret to her husband and again she must leave.

But this is just a part of the troubles that Oharu has suffered in her life and many more (unfortunate) experiences follow throughout her life.   Will this woman who has suffered so much, find any happiness?



“The Life of Oharu – The Criterion Collection #664” is presented in 1080p High Definition (1:37:1 aspect ratio).  For fans of Mizoguchi’s films, if there is one thing that Criterion Collection fans can expect and that is a cleaned up, near pristine version of “The Life of Oharu”.  Black levels are nice and deep, whites and grays offer magnificent clarity and the film is sharp and looks fantastic!

According to the Criterion Collection, “This new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a  35 mm fine-grain master positive struck from the original camera negative, except for reel one, which was taken from a 35 mm duplicate negative, because that portion of the master positive has been lost.  The restoration was performed by the Prasad Group, India, and the Criterion Collection.”


“The Life of Oharu – The Criterion Collection #664” is presented in monaural LPCM 1.0.  Dialogue is clear and according to the Criterion Collection, “The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the fine-grain optical track.  Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD.  Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.”


“The Life of Oharu – The Criterion Collection #664” comes with the following special features:

  • Audio commentary – Featuring an audio commentary by film scholar Dudley andrew.
  • Mizoguchi’s Art and the Deimonde – (18:50) Film scholar Dudley Andrew discusses Kenji Mizoguchi’s life and career.
  • The Travels of Kinuyo Tanaka  – (31:13) A featurette about actress Kinuyo Tanaka visiting Hawaii and California years after World War II.  In Japanese with English subtitles.


“The Life of Oharu – The Criterion Collection #664” comes with a 24-page booklet featuring the essay “Not Reconciles” by Gilberto Perez.


“The Life of Oharu” has been a film that I have felt conveyed the pain that Mizoguchi had felt throughout his younger years.  A film based on a novel from the 1680’s that showcases one woman’s suffering throughout her lifetime.

Where a film such as “Sansho the Bailiff” showcased a family suffering after being exiled and a wife sold to prostitution and the children sold to slavery, “The Life of Oharu” focuses on a woman who went against Japanese rules of the time preventing upperclass and lowerclass to have relationships and one that is punishable by execution and exile.

Both Mizoguchi films are tragic but where “Sansho the Bailiff” offers a glimmer of hope when things look so dark and terrible, “The Life of Oharu” does not.  Watching it today, you can get the sense that Ihara Saikaku’s story was about the class differences in Japanese society in the Edo period.  Not anyone can fall in love and relationships between two classes were seen as so severe that one should pay for that sin throughout her lifetime.

But for Mizoguchi, the correlations of family in poverty and the women sold to earn money for the family was personal for the filmmaker.  Seeing his older sister sold to geishadom and while his mother and sister suffered by the hands of their father, he grew up feeling sensitive towards the women in his life, especially since he was taken care of by his sister.

But as many Japanese films that cover a life, culture and traditions of old, for any viewer, we can see the tragedy because of society’s rules and how people view such situations.

For Oharu, no matter where she goes, her tales of indiscretion follow her.  She is seen as a sexual deviant, men want to rape her, women want to despise her and just when she found one man in her life that helps change her life, once again, she is rocked by unfortunate situations and it never stops.

And perhaps this is what makes “The Life of Oharu” so different from other Japanese films.  There is no looking for hope, there is no plan to make a happy ending, the film is an examination of the issues of Japanese society of its time.  Strict rules, severe punishment and women who were treated as lower individuals made to suffer.

For the original writer Ihara Saikaku, this was the “Floating World” culture that he examined during the Edo-period in Japan.  How women were brought into the red-light district and for Mizoguchi’s films, showing how families of upper class can suddenly have their lives turned upside down through one irrational decision.  It happened in the past, it has happened with Mizoguchi’s own family and unfortunately, it continues to happen in many countries where young girls and women are sold for money by poor families.

The efficacy of “The Life of Oharu” is thanks to Mizoguchi’s long tracking shots, its location and environment, costume design but most importantly the performance of actress Kinuyo Tanaka (“Sansho the Bailiff”, “Red Beard”). The film captures Mizoguchi’s mastering of long takes, an entire scene in one single shot.  For “The Life of Oharu”, there are only 197 shots in the entire film, which is surprising but that is what Mizoguchi was known for. Especially for his tracking shots.

A commanding performance with a wide range of emotions, Tanaka delivers!  But most shockingly is that for Tanaka to be in 15 of Mizoguchi’s films and knowing Mizoguchi’s stance on women’s suffering, the working relationship between Mizoguchi and Tanaka ended when she pursued a career in becoming a director.  Recommended by the Directors Guild of Japan for the Nikkatsu studio, Mizoguchi countered the recommendation and while Tanaka went on to become a director, Mizoguchi’s actions would end their working relationship.

As for the Blu-ray release, “The Life of Oharu” looks wonderful on Blu-ray and its LPCM 1.0 soundtrack is devoid of any major hiss or crackle.  You get an audio commentary by film scholar Andrew Dudley who is well-versed in the career of Mizoguchi and you also get a featurette on Kinuyo Tanaka which was a wonderful addition.

Overall, “The Life of Oharu” is a film that is revered as a masterpiece.  While I feel that I’ve always been biased towards Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu Monogatari” and even “Sansho the Bailiff” because the film offers a glimmer of hope, “The Life of Oharu” may not, but in terms of cinematic style and storyline, the film is still a quintessential Mizoguchi film that cineaste will want to own and have in their collection.

Highly recommended!

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