Review of The Life of Oharu (1952)

Moving picture, 133 minutes

Seen in 2017.

A noblewoman goes through a largely miserable life, with moments of happiness in the arms of relatively decent men and with some compassionate fellow prostitutes.

Melodrama, jidaigeki. I usually like linear lifetime narratives but the flashback, which is the main body of the film, is barely good. Swift pacing and intelligent use of silence hold it up, but it’s low on consequence with an annoyingly silent and passive protagonist who invites emotional identification mainly by the crude means of beauty (coincidence), nobility (more coincidence) and a desire for love. By contrast, the framing level of the narrative, where Oharu is in her fifties, is excellent. I love the temple with the many sitting statues looking down on her as she recalls her life. Her attempt to approach her son is a strong climax, with movement in waves, brilliantly set to roiling music that prefigures Ennio Morricone’s work at the height of the Spaghetti Western. The final scene of Oharu as a nun is an image of Buddhism at its miserable best.

References here: Daibosatsu Pass (1966), “Firebird: Karma Chapter” (1986), “Room to Be Free: Speaking About Spirited Away at the Press Conference Held Upon Completion of the Film” (2001).

moving picture Japanese production fiction