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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Kenji Mizoguchi | 西鶴一代女 Saikaku Ichidai Onna (The Life of Oharu)


the goblin cat
by Douglas Messerli

Kenji Mizoguchi (screenplay, based on the fiction by Yoda Yoshikata), Kenji Mizoguchi (director) 西鶴一代女 Saikaku Ichidai Onna (The Life of Oharu)  / 1952 
 

Kenji Mizoguchi’s film from 1952, The Life of Oharu, begins and ends near the same place, with the film’s heroine of the 16th century, Lady Oharu, having just been mocked by a man who has taken her to a bar where several of his students wait. Oharu, who is now 50, but attempting to pass herself off as a prostitute of 20 is derided by the man: “Look at this painted face! Do you still want to buy a woman?” he asks, while describing her as a “goblin cat.”

     Returning to her prostitute friends, gathered around a makeshift fire, she decries her fate. And soon after, as she wanders away to a nearby Buddhist temple filled with pottery depicting hundreds of male heroes of the past, we are gradually told the story of her piteous life.

     Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) begins her life in the court as a well-dressed lady-in-waiting, demure in her behavior and personality. But secretly she has fallen in love with a young page (Toshiro Mifune), who is far below her exalted position. Despite her attempts to dissuade his attentions to her, she cannot resist him, and is discovered by her overseers making love. The page is beheaded, and Oharu is sent away from the sacred temple in Kyoto with her father and mother in shame.
       So begins a life in which the beautiful young woman, played by the same actress throughout, is used by her father and family to bring them money and fame. Unmarriageable in respectful families, she is sold as a concubine to Lord Matsudaira, whose wife is barren. Oharu, amazingly, fits all the physical qualities her Lord has demanded, and she produces a healthy male heir, who is immediately taken away from her to be nursed by others. The envious wife convinces her husband to send Oharu away without even a fair payment.
       Even more angry by the new turn of events, her father becomes determined to sell her as a courtesan, but because of her grace and high demeanor, she again fails. When she returns home this time, he sells her into the service of a lady who, having lost most of her hair, wears elaborate wigs, which Oharu must carefully intertwine with the remaining hair upon her head. Again Oharu, modest and faithful, attempts to fit into the new situation. But a passing businessman, who sees her in his friend’s home, recognizes her from the red-light district, making a rude joke to about her to his colleague. Threatened with being exiled again, Oharu takes revenge upon the wife, revealing the woman’s baldness.

       Only then does Oharu find any respite, as she marries a gentle fan maker, and opens a store with him. But one day, on his rounds about the city, he is killed, leaving her, once more, without money or any possible way to survive.
       Oharu attempts to join a convent, telling the head nun that all she wants “is to be a near to Buddha.” Yet once again, her past intrudes, as a visitor demands repayment for a gift of cloth he has given her to make a kimono. Furious, she rips the kimono and undergarments off body, handing them back to the salesman. Her behavior, however, is deemed disgraceful and again she is banished.
      Good luck seems momentarily to return when she is allowed to return to Lord Matsudaira’s palace as a servant. But she is given only a passing look at her son, who struts by without even knowing of her existence. Her demands to see him result, once more, with her banishment.
      And so, the film returns to where it has begun, with her pondering her “sad fate,” just as another soulful singer has sung earlier on in the film.

      Only in the very last scene do we get a glimpse of another possibility, as, now dressed as a Buddhist nun, the great Oharu begs for a few coins in order to eat.
       As in so many of his films, Mizoguchi reveals once more how women are tortured in the male hierarchy of Japanese culture. But in this film we come to realize that such issues are not just a product of the difficult transitions of the post-World War II era, but are ingrained in centuries of male privilege, during which women had little choice in the course of their lives. 
     If Oharu is shown an obedient and serving being, attempting to maintain the politesse she has been taught, we also see, at moments, her development as an angry and bitter pre-feminist who attempts to stand up to forces so ingrained that she can only appear as an unwanted goblin as opposed to the desired docile cat upon her master’s lap.  

Los Angeles, November 25, 2015

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