Tragic tale of repression in Japanese society

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The Life Of Oharu


As a child growing up in poverty, Japanese film-maker Kenji Mizoguchi saw his sister sold as a geisha. The tragedy dominated his career-his movies often concentrated on women crushed under the weight of society-and resonated most strongly in this late masterpiece from 1952.

We first see Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) as an ageing prostitute in 17th-century Japan, before the film becomes a reverie on how she got there. Born in the imperial palace, the young Oharu falls for a servant, a man considered beneath her class. He’s beheaded, and she’s banished. So begins Oharu’s long, painful slide into degradation.

It’s full-blown tragedy, driven by anger at the injustices of Japanese society. Mizoguchi’s serene visual style is at its most acute here, the film a series of meticulous compositions through which he tracks Oharu’s descent in long, serpentine movements. Close-ups are rare; the camera keeps a discreet distance, yet, paradoxically, this only seems to draw us further in. Exquisite.