Kenji Mizoguchi was one of Japan's most prolific directors. It was only late in his career that he became internationally known and a household name. Most famous possibly for 'Ugetso', Mizoguchi made a little film called 'The Life of Oharu' by which he gained a lot of attention, which then led to him making 'Ugetso'. This is by no means a happy film. in fact, it is one of the most depressing movies I've ever seen, but it's also an important one, as it shows what life was like for women during a certain time in Japanese history.
We first see a group of prostitutes huddled around a fire, trying to keep warm in the mean streets of 17th century Kyoto. One of them goes by the name Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka). She is now getting up in her years and wondering where the time has gone. One of the younger prostitutes asks Oharu how she ended up being a "lady of the evening", thus beginning a series of flashback sequences to a younger Oharu.
Oharu's life is not for the weak at heart and is filled with so many obstacles and harrowing moments that you can only feel pity and sorrow for this woman. After a love affair with Katsunosuke (Toshiro Mifune), a lower end page, Oharu and her family are exiled while Katsunosuke is executed for his crime. After this, Oharu attempts suicide but fails. Her father becomes increasingly angry at her, eventually selling her to Lord Matsudaira (Toshiaki Konoe), who uses her for nothing more than to procreate one child.
She proves successful at bearing his child, but after the kid is born, he sends her back to her family. Once back, her dad has acquired a big debt that he must pay off. He even thinks that she was banished from Matsudaira for her being a poor servant and seductress, and feels she is a disgrace. So he sells her again to a house that doubles as a brothel. The main lady at this house is bald and is secretly hiding this fact from her husband. In jealousy, the woman tries to cut Oharu's hair. Oharu won't let her, which then gets her kicked out onto the streets.
Oharu meets Yakichi, (Jukichi Uno), a nice and modest man who actually falls in love with Oharu for all the right reasons. Unfortunately, shortly after they are married, he is killed during a robbery at is store. She is emotionally shattered by this, turns to religion and becomes a nun, however that doesn't work out either. Now she lives as a prostitute on the streets of Japan, with nothing to her name.
It only gets worse from there. Mizoguchi perfectly captures this time period where women were second class citizens and had virtually no place in society, except to serve. Oharu tries to lead a balanced life and find love, but it seems something tragic happens around every turn, and she is forced to the streets without a single chance to do anything to better her lot in life.
Tanaka does an impressive job as Oharu, a role that is very difficult to portray. She shows all the horrors of her life in her facial expressions without overdoing it. She is remembered for this role and deservedly so. 'The Life of Oharu' is a bleak one, but also an important history lesson, and character study of a woman trying to lead a normal life in 17th century Japan.
'The Life of Oharu' comes with a great 1080p HD transfer presented in 1.37:1 aspect ratio. According to the booklet from Criterion, this new transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35mm master positive that was taken from the original negative with the exception of one reel, which was retrieved from a duplicate 35mm negative, due to the reel being lost. That being said, this transfer is as close to the source as it can be with.
The detail is definitely polished and more defined than any other version of this film. We can see better detail in the costumes and faces of the actors. The black and white coloring looks good too, with great saturation. There are however, some image skips, frame warping, and some wear and tear around the edges from time to time. Banding and aliasing seem to be non-existent in this transfer, giving this video presentation a true to source and filmic look. This is the best the film has ever been seen.
This release comes with a Japanese LPCM 1.0 mono audio mix. According to the booklet, the original mono soundtrack was remastered at 24 bit from the optical track, with all of the hisses, pops, and cracks being removed. This audio mix is simple and situated on one speaker.
There isn't a whole lot going on as far as LFE or any real dynamic range. The age and quality of the recording really limited this audio track from being what it could, without significantly changing the trueness of the sound. The dialogue is always clear with some great English sub-titles. Overall, this is a decent audio mix for what it is.
'The Life of Oharu' is a great film. While it is not light-hearted or particularly fun to watch, it's definitely an important and beautiful film. The acting by Tanaka is superb. One of the better films of early Japanese cinema. The video and audio presentations are amazing of course, thanks to Criterion's high standards, with some decent extras. This Blu-ray comes highly recommended.