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Film / The Life of Oharu

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The Life of Oharu (西鶴一代女) is a 1952 film from Japan directed by Kenji Mizoguchi.

Oharu (Mizoguchi regular Kinuyo Tanaka) is a woman of noble birth, daughter of a samurai who is a member of the imperial household. She falls in love with Katsunosuke, a page (Toshiro Mifune, in a surprisingly small part since he was already a huge star). They are caught together while having a tryst, a tragic event that triggers an unending series of disasters for the rest of Oharu's life. Her boyfriend is executed, but she and her family are kicked out of the royal court and exiled from Kyoto forever. Her father, who now sees her exclusively as a commodity, sells her as a concubine to Lord Matsudaira, who needs an heir and whose wife is barren. Oharu bears him a son, but his wife's jealousy results in Oharu being cruelly booted from the lord's household. Things go From Bad to Worse as Oharu, who now has a reputation as a loose woman, starts sliding down the sex-worker ladder, her life an unending series of misery and pain.

So if you want a Happy Ending, look elsewhere.


  • Diabolus ex Machina: Oharu makes mistakes a couple of times but just as often is victimized by cruel and random fate. The most random and most crappy bit of bad luck has to be when she has seemingly found happiness as the wife of an affectionate and prosperous fan merchant, only for the fan merchant to be murdered by bandits. And since this is patriarchal Japan, the fan business goes to his male relatives and she is left with nothing.
  • Downer Ending: The logical conclusion to a series of downers. The movie ends with Oharu being denied a chance to see her son and left as a wandering homeless beggar.
  • Epic Tracking Shot: Some impressive shots in this movie, like the scene where Oharu gets a letter that her lover Katsunosuke has been executed. The camera follows her out of her parents' house and stays with her as she runs around the forest, freaking out, ultimately trying to kill herself before her mother chases her down and grabs the knife.
  • Foreshadowing: After leaving the brothel Oharu gives some money to a beggar woman playing a lute. Later, Oharu is reduced to doing that herself.
  • From Bad to Worse: Jesus Christ. Your boyfriend is executed? That's bad. Exiled from the imperial household? Bad. Sold as a glorified Sex Slave to a lord? Bad. Left to work as a high-class hooker after being separated from your son? Bad. Get married, only for your husband to be murdered? Pretty bad. Left to work as a low-class hooker? Pretty darn bad. Left as a homeless beggar when you're too old and unattractive for hooking? Wow, that is super bad.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Oharu gets a job as a servant for the merchant Jihei and his wife. They take a kindly and parental interest in her until they find out that she used to be a courtesan. The wife then goes nuts with jealousy, while the husband starts lusting after Oharu.
  • High-Class Call Girl: Oharu does this for a while after she's kicked out of Lord Matsudaira's house. She eventually loses this job when she has too much dignity to scrabble after the money that a boorish client is literally throwing around on the floor of the brothel.
  • Hope Spot: A few, which are all cruelly subverted as Oharu seems doomed to a life of suffering. Living as a lord's concubine turns out to be not that bad, and she has a son to love—but she's kicked out of the lord's house. She gets married and has happiness with an affectionate shopkeeper—but he's murdered. After she's an old woman, she's offered a chance to live with her grown son, the new lord—but his attendants refuse to allow that to happen.
  • How We Got Here: The movie starts with Oharu as a fifty-ish prostitute, before it vaults 35 years or so to tell the story of how her life went to hell.
  • Jidaigeki: Specifically, the Edo period, around the turn of the 17th-18th centuries. Pretty crappy time to be a woman.
  • The Mistress: For a time, Oharu is the concubine of Lord Matsudaira. She's pretty unhappy about this to start with, as Katsunosuke's dying wish was for her to marry for love. Naturally, since Oharu was seemingly born to suffer, once she starts to get used to things in the lord's household, she is cruelly ejected and separated from her son forever.
  • No Woman's Land: As so often with Mizoguchi's heroines, Oharu's misfortunes are largely caused by being a woman in a highly patriarchal society. Initially, her family's only plans for her are to push her into an Arranged Marriage, but her relationship with Katsunosuke makes her unmarriageable, so her father sells her as a concubine who is dismissed as soon as she fulfills her duty of providing her master with a male heir. To pay off his debts, her father sells her as a courtesan, then as a domestic servant, a position she loses when her previous job comes to light. When her husband is murdered, his male relatives inherit his estate, leaving her nothing. She is expelled from a convent after being raped by Jihei, whereupon she turns to prostitution until she is too old to attract customers. And when her son inherits his father's title and sends for her, she is turned away by his courtiers for her "immoral" past.
  • The Oner: Multiple long takes. The scene where Oharu is humiliated in front of a band of religious pilgrims is a four-minute scene done in one take.
  • Prematurely Bald: A housewife that Oharu works for wears an elaborate wig, and is terrified that her husband will discover she lost most of her hair due to illness.
  • Rape as Drama: Another disaster for Oharu comes after she has joined a nunnery, seeking to serve Buddha. Her old Abhorrent Admirer Bunkichi finds her and gives her some silk from Jihei's shop. Jihei comes for the silk, which Oharu has made into a kimono. She angrily strips out of the kimono. Jihei rapes her. This gets her kicked out of the nunnery.
  • Streetwalker: The 18th-century Japanese equivalent thereof, as Oharu finds herself trolling for johns along the dusty streets of some crumbling village after she is taken in by a band of hookers.
  • Trauma Conga Line: A merciless procession. Besides the series of disasters listed in From Bad to Worse above, Oharu is initially offered a chance to live with her son after the son has become the new lord, only for her son's courtiers to put the kibosh on that for fear of bad publicity.
  • Traumatic Haircut: Jihei's wife, who has gone Prematurely Bald, becomes crazed with jealousy over Oharu. So she grabs Oharu and hacks off a chunk of her hair by force.
  • Uptown Girl: Oharu's first problem. She is the daughter of a samurai and thus cannot possibly be in a relationship with a lowly page like Katsunosuke.
  • Walking the Earth: Oharu's fate, left as a wandering beggar.