All throughout The Life of Oharu, I couldn’t stop thinking about the way Kenji Mizoguchi responded to Kinuyo Tanaka’s filmmaking ambitions. Most accounts have it that he actively tried to sabotage her, campaigning against her bid to join the Directors’ Guild of Japan and cutting professional ties with her after she went through with it and made Love Letter — all, reportedly, on the grounds that the director’s chair was no place for a woman. If those stories are true, what Mizoguchi did was nothing short of gender violence, a man availing himself of the structural power he held over a woman to try to rob her of a goal that went against his own agenda. There are so many stories like that in film history, so many promising female filmmakers all over the world whose careers got cut short because of how invariably patriarchal the industry has always been; Tanaka was luckier than most, and even then, she only made six films.
The reason this was going through my head during The Life of Oharu was twofold: first, Tanaka’s performance, a bitter, quietly impassioned struggle against the script’s tendency to flatten Oharu into a symbol, had me losing my bearings at the thought of what her mind could accomplish behind the camera, and the idea that her bow as director might have been another false start had Mizoguchi gotten his way seemed downright criminal. The second reason was, of course, the discrepancy between what I knew and what I was seeing; the film possessed an unusually empathetic understanding of the stranglehold of patriarchy and displayed it without compromise, denouncing its various outgrowths in Japanese society as if going through a checklist, which initially registered as bizarre to me given the circumstances. And sure enough, a lot of academic energy has gone into figuring out the extent to which Mizoguchi’s treatment of women in his private life reflected his films’ proto-feminist themes. But I think the real million dollar question has nothing to do with Mizoguchi’s biography; it seems clear to me he was a misogynist. What I had to ask myself during the movie was: is the art really that distant from the person?
My gut said it was, less because of what I was seeing than what I was seeing; if decades of rotation didn’t knock Oharu off the canon, it seemed a little presumptuous of me to barge in second-guessing its feminist credentials. Easing me further into the consensus was the fact at hand of Mizoguchi’s direction: everything from his emphasis on suppressed bodily movement to his employment of protracted silences over the endless takes seemed to suggest a kind of stifled civil agony, a search for the flailing humanity entombed in the abuse, with the occasional shamisen strings and stark compositions (Oharu freaking out behind the clothesline was an instant new favorite) serving as necessary but cruelly fleeting trudges forward. For a story with sex work as a primary focus, the camera treats most of the women with unusual dignity, keeping a respectful distance from their figures and rising above their eye level only in moments of justified vulnerability. More than anything, there is an underlying sense of humor to it all, a feeling that Oharu is just a few degrees removed from the baffled everywoman in an elaborate farcical world, as exemplified by the lovely running gag of people bowing down frantically.
All that, coupled with a clear, borderline hyperbolic account of The Japanese Woman’s Trials — and still I’m not convinced this is a feminist film. I’m sure it may be, and the last thing I want to suggest is that my skepticism is in any way prescriptive. But there’s something about the way this narrative is sequenced, the way Oharu keeps lucking into second chances and grace periods only for them to be promptly squashed under the boot of fate — because it’s not enough for her to be denied happiness, no, she has to mourn it — that reeks of miserablism. (The word “fetishization” feels wrong here, because Mizoguchi’s camera is stringently kind to its suffering women; it’s less about his gaze and more about what he’s gazing at.) A particular misfortune late in the game feels outright gratuitous, lacking any insight into the shittiness of men apart from some barely-there commentary on feudal primogeniture; in its wake, the tension of “How is the patriarchy going to screw over this lady next?” is subsumed almost whole under a much less revelatory feeling of “Just how much pain can one person endure?” And then it just becomes a matter of how far the writers will go.
One could argue it’s a radical exercise in empathy — indeed, the nuances of victimhood are never lost on Tanaka, who makes sure we understand Oharu as an active figure even while standing still, and the script intermittently comes to her aid in dazzling fashion (a certain flip of expectations involving a band of samurai apprentices will forever stay with me). What I’m unsure of is Mizoguchi’s political endgame, if he even has one; the old gospel about how depicting is different from endorsing also goes for supposed indictments, and, for example, there are more than enough nods toward spirituality throughout Oharu (Mizoguchi had just converted to Buddhism) to support a reading of the heroine’s plight as a noble path to enlightenment, something rough but ultimately (see: the final shot) worth conforming to. That’s not necessarily a more feasible interpretation than the feminist one, but it’s equally there if you look for it, and, to me, the suggestion of anything resembling glorification is enough to leave a sour taste in the mouth.
Then again, the mere extension of empathy to an archetypal woman arguably counts as radical in the context of postwar Japan, and the film now has the benefit of a full half-century of shifts in gender relations to guarantee the average viewer’s nausea, with or without deeper thematic analysis. Is it fair to let Mizoguchi off the hook due to the passage of time? I don’t have an answer for that; political readings of art must always return to the question of what is effectively being communicated, and The Life of Oharu is in many ways a Rorschach test. The behavior of women in it, for one thing, is replete with stereotypes of the cringiest kind, from fainting spells to passive-aggressive cattiness, stereotypes that would be integral to the cultural vocabulary of a man who believes women shouldn’t be directors. Yet it’s just as easy to view those sexist traits as justifiable responses to the larger patriarchal structure — when a bond of solidarity between two women dissolves into shrieking rivalry over their precarious social standing, it can seem laughable, but it can also seem deeply tragic, and I personally don’t see how an attentive viewing leads you to anything but the latter. I sometimes felt the aforementioned sense of humor went a bridge too far, but, as is ever the case, I might have been giggling at things which weren’t supposed to be funny; there’s no way to tell for sure (though I submit the escalating suicide attempts sequence could have been airlifted from a Monty Python sketch). The very gist of the film’s gender politics — Oharu’s decision to have extramarital sex precipitating an unending cycle of sex work as the only means of survival — can set off wildly varied moral paroxysms on both ends of the ideological spectrum.
Such ambivalence is aggravated by the way Mizoguchi slides down the timeline: the film is structured like a series of expeditions with brief retreats to a home base, and what we actually see of those expeditions amounts to very little. All that’s shown of any of Oharu’s purgatories is what’s strictly necessary to keep her moving from one to the next: she enters a new life, she’s ruined by men, she packs up, she soldiers on. On one hand, it’s an approach with little room for character depth, such that the women are often reduced to vessels for pain; on the other, it’s highly calculated historical clipping, different permutations of systemic misogyny placed in the kind of illuminating proximity that the film medium was born for, and, again, what you take away from it depends on what you bring in, how primed you are to think women are human beings without the film having to tell you so.
In conclusion, I don’t know. Oharu moved me greatly, the way you don’t necessarily want movies to move you. It made me feel anxious, sink back into my seat, look away in exasperation; I left utterly worn out. And I do believe it has objective political value— as pointed out by a commenter in our Facebook group, it’s maybe the most thorough deconstruction of victim-blaming mentality ever committed to film. Still, my mind keeps echoing the same thought: goddammit, Mizoguchi. It just seems wrong to me, on a gut level, to talk him up for what he had to say about women. His compositional refinement? His sense of timing? Sure. But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch this film and not be suspicious of its outlook on gender.
In fact, goddammit, film industry at large. I’d blind-buy a Blu-Ray set of Tanaka’s directorial filmography out of spite at this point; I can’t stress enough how fortunate this film is to have her. If nothing else, it certainly feels like profound karmic injustice that Mizoguchi would go on to make even more canonical films about female martyrdom while her own work got swept under the rug (this might come as a shock, but, uh, there is no Blu-Ray set of her filmography, or any of her films). And, like, sure, some of the urgency is tempered by the fact that all of these people are dead, but still: much the same way a movie about misogyny in feudal Japan was still timely in 1952, we can’t dissociate these pitfalls of the mid-20th century from the experience of women directors today.