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Saikaku ichidai onna (1952)

Diary of Oharu, The Life of Oharu, Saikaku: Life of a Woman

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 131 minutes

UK Certificate: PG


Kenji Mizoguchi made more than 85 films from 1922 until his death in 1956, and although many of these are now forever lost or destroyed, he was, along with Ozu, the most admired Japanese director of his generation. He did not, however, gain recognition in the West until 1952, when his 'The Life of O-Haru' was selected for the Venice Film Festival, winning the Silver Lion Award.

If his previous film, 'The Lady of Musashino' (1951), was an elegy for the sexual immorality and loss of traditional values in the post-war era, then 'The Life of O-Haru' is a savage rejoinder, exposing the iniquities and humiliations suffered by women in feudalist Japan, and looking forward to the day “when all will be free to love regardless of status”. Mizoguchi was himself no stranger to the sufferings of women, having witnessed as a child his older sister being sold off as a geisha, and his other sister and mother being mistreated by his father, and these memories have left their clear imprint on the film.

In 17th century Japan, the statues in a Buddhist temple remind an elderly prostitute named O-Haru (Kinuyo Tanaka) of the different men in her past, prompting her to reflect upon the downwardly mobile vicissitudes of her life. Born a noble, she starts out as a cloistered, elegant servant in the Imperial Court, but a brief affair with the low-born page Katsunosuke (Toshirô Mifune) leads to his execution and her banishment, along with her parents, from the Imperial City. Her father sells her off as concubine to a powerful Lord whose wife cannot conceive, but once O-Haru has provided a male heir, she is summarily removed from the house, and sold off (again) by her father to become a geisha. She eventually leaves, but her ruined reputation causes her to be abused and ejected from both a noble's household and a nunnery, and her happy marriage to a businessman is cut short when he is killed by thieves. Finally she is reduced to an old age of street begging and prostitution, and rejected by her own son, now a Lord.

O-Haru's first words in the film are “It's hard for a fifty-year old woman to pretend to be a twenty-year old”, but Kinuyo Tanaka effortlessly portrays this “spectacle of an ill-fated woman” from her promising teens to her doomed old age. Just as O-Haru is so often seen cloaking her face and struggling to retain her composure amidst endless indignities, the film itself has a graceful pace and fluid cinematography which both belie and underscore the deep bitterness at its heart. O-Haru's picaresque adventures take us through a world where women are merely servants and sexual commodities, kept only until they have served their purpose – and where happiness is rare and fleeting. The prostitutes who prove kinder to O-Haru than anyone else put it best: “It's all the same, whatever we do”. For ultimately, no matter whether she is a member of the Imperial household or a low-class whore, O-Haru has no personal freedom.

A beautiful, at times funny, but mostly harrowing portrait of female servitude and degradation.

It's Got: Cinematography so fluid you barely notice it, a moving performance from Kinuyo Tanaka, and wonderful period settings and costumes.

It Needs: Feudalism to end - oh, it has...

DVD Extras A very nice black-and-white print, but the extras are basic - scene selection and a comprehensive Mizoguchi filmography. DVD Extras Rating: 2/10


A beautiful, harrowing portrayal of female servitude and degradation in seventeenth century Japan.