Mike N’s review published on Letterboxd:
A respectable Samurai's daughter to a street prostitute and beggar.
A comfortable life to one of sorrow, injustice and misery.
A woman with values and a purpose to a shell of her former self.
The Life of Oharu is a depressing look at the effects of the Feudal Japan period on Women, specifically in the 17th century. What's interesting is that even though some of acts committed are heinous, they were standard practice for the time period and it seems most people in that era thought none the wiser about the mistreatment of women and prejudice against social class. It makes me think; if these practices were still in place today, ingrained into our minds and every day society - would we think anything of it? While it's true the human race has come far in its treatment of Women in the 400 years since the setting of this movie, the fact that some of the material remains familiar is quite disturbing.
The Life of Oharu starts almost where it ends, with the titular character wandering lifelessly around the empty streets as a prostitute, stripped of her dignity and reduced to a fragment of her former status. It's all about the journey, not the climax as knowing where Oharu ends up makes the events of the movie all the more distressing to watch. From the opening we are quickly taken back to Oharu's teenage years and from then on the story skips years at a time, showing the main events of her life as she attempts to find some solace in a male dominated society. In a lot of movies with harsh subject matter there's often a moment of happiness to give the viewer a break; Mizoguchi teases it and for maybe a couple of minutes I gained some hope, only for it to be ripped from me in an instant - If Oharu is going to be miserable, then so is the viewer. The Life of Oharu is slowly paced and drawn out, but I found it to suit the movie perfectly as it mirrors the nature of Oharu's despair over a long, slow multi-decade period.
Oharu is a tragic case. Love broken up because of class, verbally and physically abused, treated as an object to be sold or passed on with no choice in the matter - she's an embodiment of the misery that some women had to put up with in this time period all rolled into one character. There's a scene where a good twenty or thirty women are rounded up like cattle only to be objectified and examined for flaws to weed out unsuitable candidates to give birth to an heir. It's at this point where the message behind the movie really started to sink in, here are these men holding women against their will, treating them like a cheap, throw away item - and for what? I still find it difficult to come to terms with this kind of thing once being standard practice. If there's one thing that bothered me about The Life of Oharu it's that on top of dealing with the problems imposed on her through her parents and Japanese society, there's also elements of bad luck that comes her way as well. As much as the movie resonated with me, I thought it got slightly excessive at times.
Just like in Ugetsu, Mizoguchi captures the time period wonderfully with superb light, set and costume design. It's only my second film of his and while Ugetsu tells a better story, The Life of Oharu carries a stronger message and feels far more personal.