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‘The Life of Oharu’ Hits Criterion: In Praise of the Body

Written by on July 9, 2013 

Since silent film first took shape and began to create a cinematic language (at least one for narrative cinema), film theorists have expounded on the beauty of the close-up. It is the apex of emotions, the climax of being, the face that turns a blink into an earthquake. In his famous piece, the Hungarian film theorist Béla Balázs argues, “The magnifying glass of the cinematograph brings us closer to the individual cells of life, it allows us to feel the texture and substance of life in its concrete detail.” Balázs’s phrases are certainly simmering with his own emotions toward the subject, and his case study film, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, certainly speaks to the power of the cinematic technique. But, halfway around the world, another filmmaker found the details of life without the close-up, instead telling his tales of female tragedy in long shot, capturing emotion not via the face, but the body — a total gesture instead of a single one. The Life of Oharu, Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1952 epic — now available in a fantastic Blu-Ray transfer from Criterion — is perhaps the director’s most vivid use of the body as an expression of the emotions of melodrama.

Examination of the body in cinema is no recent phenomena, though it certainly reached a deluge of theoretical construction in the post-Deleuzian moment (even the recent Vulgar Auteurism phenomenon has been partially centered around the body). But Mizoguchi’s narratives are rarely about movement in a physical sense; characters move locations, but it is more often based on abstract and mental decisions than tactile gestures. The gestures are still the key to Mizoguchi emotional understanding: to feel the characters, one must view the way actors move across the floors and through doors, their speeds and their directions, sometimes their stillness. Whether this makes Mizoguchi “more Japanese” than his Golden Age counterparts (Ozu, Naruse, Kurosawa) is more or less irrelevant, though it should be noted that this puts him in the tradition of Japanese theater’s very gestural expressions.

The Life of Oharu’s narrative is particularly susceptible to this type of expression, as it’s a particularly punishing and tragic melodrama which maneuvers through 17th-century Japanese society. The main character, played by Kinuyo Tanaka, is first seen as an old beggar wandering the streets. Through a flashback, we learn about her poor life: the man she loved was executed due to class differences, her secret work as a mistress bearing a son, a courtesan for a secretly bald wife, and even more tragic events, best left for viewers to discover. Like many of Mizoguchi’s films, there is little reprieve for the woman — yet there is also a sense of not coming to terms with injustice, but moving around it. As Gilberto Perez writes in his Criterion essay, “That suffering is inevitable does not mean resignation to injustice.”

Because Mizoguchi’s films are so much about order and hierarchies in society, it seems perfectly natural for him to emphasize the physical qualities of the bodies, to see them in relation to each other in their tactile presence while different forces skew other relationships. When Katsunosuke (Toshiro Mifune) demands the love of Oharu, he spends almost the entire scene on his knees, despite the fact that he is clearly many ranks above her in society. Oharu continually moves through the frame, her back almost always turned from his body — she refuses to even glance at the physical love seen from his eyes. When she gives in and turns toward him, she lunges, the connection of their bodies more forceful in this long frame than in close-up. Their disconnect is remedied by two merging into one, a connection made and seen as total love instead of one disconnected by close-ups.

Even when there is no movement, Mizoguchi prefers the long shot to the close-up, because it is often about the placement of Oharu as the story’s central figure. If the film were based on truth, there’s no doubt that history books of the various lords Oharu interacts with would write her out of the history, yet she is present to bear witness to all, so Mizoguchi centers her within his frames. As she reflects on having borne a son for the Lord, Oharu sits in a white robe, proud of her accomplished work, claiming that she “finally has a home.” The moment of brief happiness is too short-lived, and as she is told she will not be allowed to nurse the baby, Mizoguchi keeps the camera on Oharu until she is left alone in pain, lying on the floor. Scholars have attempted to parse through the “feminism” of Mizoguchi, his numerous “fallen women” narratives at once seeming utterly cruel in the series of events they put their characters through. And, yet, as the camera lingers and centers around her loss, one can’t help but feel the comparison evident in his frame. Her body lies almost crippled, and although Mizoguchi’s camera has been called removed by some for keeping such a distance, viewing her isolation is, instead, more emotional. Here is the key to continuing the existence of the empire, and she has been casually tossed away.

It is often said that one maximizes emotion through the close-up, the absolute presence of the face and its small gestures made into giant impacts. But long shots and bodies can express more than wide landscapes or the pleasures of momentous action. Melodrama has used numerous techniques to find ways into our emotions — the colors of Sirk, the poetic edits of Borzage, the roaming camera of Ophuls. Mizoguchi finds his way to the heart of melodrama through the body. This is not necessarily to deem it a preferable method of cinematic technique — as Kent Jones once noted, it is always essential “to stop thinking in terms of moral-aesthetic hierarchies” — but simply a method that fits the nature of Mizoguchi’s dramas. Anyone who knows Mizougchi can point to numerous close-ups, too, perhaps the most haunting being that final frame of The Sisters of Gion. But in The Life of Oharu, the greatest moments of emotion are almost always when we are furthest from our protagonist — seeing her track through the palace to see her son, rushing down a bridge in order to get a closer look at him. The body’s careful movements and desperate steps (silent compared to the broad, violent gestures of the guards surrounding her) remind us of the possibilities of cinema’s use of the body as a force of emotion. The capacity to express ourselves is rarely limited to quivers in a cheek, but the motions of our entire beings.

The Life of Oharu is now available on The Criterion Collection.

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