"Life of Oharu" gets the high-def treatment

Kinuyo Tanaka in "Life of Oharu," 1952, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. (AMPAS / December 26, 1996)

When director Kenji Mizoguchi died of leukemia in 1956 he was 58 and a leading figure in world cinema, championed by members of the French New Wave, and the recipient of major prizes at the Venice Film Festival three years in a row. Along with Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, he defined the Japanese movie industry's golden age, but today his name is barely known to Western filmgoers, overshadowed by his two slightly younger contemporaries.

In crucial ways, Mizoguchi's art is less quantifiable, perhaps less readily exportable than Ozu's minimalism or Kurosawa's emphatic action. His exacting and exquisitely expressive formalism favors mise-en-scène over such standard plot propellants as the close-up and montage. With its long takes and floating camera — usually at a discreet distance from his characters and often on a crane — Mizoguchi's approach is respectful but never clinical, unobtrusive but not dispassionate.

Writing in Cahiers du Cinema in 1958, critic-turned-filmmaker Jacques Rivette called the master's style "an art of modulation." Modulation has seldom been so shattering in its compassion. When Mizoguchi pulls away from devastating moments, as he does again and again in his mature work, it's a gesture of profound sympathy for his characters, whose stories usually reflect three key events in the director's childhood: a ruinous financial reversal for his father; the subsequent decision to put his teenage sister up for "adoption," essentially selling her into service as a geisha; and his mother's death.

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Mizoguchi's perennial themes — class dislocation within a rigid social hierarchy and the sacrifices, suffering and oppression of women — are central to the two 1936 features that he said marked the beginning of his serious work: "Osaka Elegy" and "Sisters of the Gion," companion pieces set in contemporary Japan that follow the thankless struggles of female protagonists. (Most of his movies from the 1920s and '30s, studio genre assignments, have been lost.)

Those enduring themes and all the outrage they contain roil beneath a surface of lyrical grace in "The Life of Oharu," the period drama that thrust Mizoguchi into the spotlight in 1952, claiming the International Prize at Venice. "Oharu," which Criterion Collection has released in a new high-definition digital transfer, tracks a woman's lifelong, nearly unrelenting debasement.

Based on Ihara Saikaku's 1686 novel "The Story of the Amorous Woman," the film delves ever deeper into the "floating world," or demimonde, of Edo-period Japan. It opens in the depths, where a fellow middle-aged streetwalker asks Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka), "How did you fall so far?" The film provides the answer that the onetime lady-in-waiting chooses to withhold. It unfolds as an extended, episodic flashback, a picaresque descent set in motion by Oharu's forbidden love for a page (Kurosawa favorite Toshiro Mifune).

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Banished from the court and forced into servitude by her samurai father's debts, she's tossed about, slipping a rung or two with almost every change of circumstance — from a feudal lord's concubine to a courtesan, prostitute of the streets and, finally, a beggar. Along the way she has brief spells as a wife, house servant and nun, but every glimmer of tranquillity proves short-lived. Throughout her many humiliations, she holds on to a defiant romantic idealism and sense of identity. An outcast by nature, she's no mere victim, nor a saint.

If Tanaka looks older than the teenager she's supposed to be at the beginning of Oharu's saga, her soulful restraint is a fine match for the precision and emotional power of the film's compositions. Cinematographer Yoshimi Hirano creates a black-and-white palette rich in thick, silvered grays. The geometry of institutional structures — temples, courts, places of business — often dominates the frame. Human figures might appear small, but the effect is that of an embrace: not an assertion of individuals' inconsequentiality but a depiction of connectedness.

Tanaka, who was one of Japan's foremost movie stars, brings an elegant physicality to Oharu's ordeals and her raptures, her stoicism and her swoons. The actress starred in the majority of Mizoguchi's postwar films, including his most celebrated trio of works: "Oharu" and the two films that each earned him Venice's Silver Lion for direction and that many consider among the best films ever made: the ghost story "Ugetsu" (1953) and "Sansho the Bailiff" (1954), in which calamitous events befall a widow and her children.

In Japan, "Oharu" was a triumphant comeback for Mizoguchi and his leading lady, whose professional partnership extended to an off-screen romantic relationship. Until that point, the general perception was that the director had lost his relevance since the war. For her part, Tanaka was repairing her reputation and reviving her spirits. She'd been harshly criticized in the Japanese press for her 1949 tour of the United States as a goodwill ambassador for the arts. The sight of her in Western clothing, hobnobbing with the rich and famous, was hard to take in a country still under Allied occupation. Her trip is the subject of a short documentary among the Criterion release's extras; it's a fascinating artifact of postwar politics and PR.

Emboldened by the relative freedom of American women, Tanaka returned home determined to make her own films. Mizoguchi, the discerning chronicler of societal hypocrisy and injustice toward women — and, like many a great artist, a synthesis of contradictions — opposed her career move. She went on to direct six features.

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