Half Empty, Since 1998

Summary of, and comments on the 1952 film by Japanese director Mizoguchi about a woman’s life as a concubine.

Marty's Notes On "The Life of Oharu"

Marty Spellerberg. February 2nd, 2000

The film shows how Oharu went from being a mistress in a royal court to a street prostitute. The bulk of the film is told as a flashback from her point of view, concluding in “present time” with her an aborted attempt to reunite with her son. She is banished form place to place, finding a home in steadily lower positions until she hits rock bottom, and becomes deathly ill. It is at this point that she is invited to the palace to be rejoined with her son so that the narrative can be seen as completing a full circle.

There is discussion in the readings associated with this film on the director’s views of women, specifically as they are conceived through the Oharu character. The role of women as a pleasurable object is central to the narrative of the film and how this affects the social interaction of the women is just as important to their activities with men. Twice Oharu’s shaky relationships with the “wives” lead to her banishment, and her pragmatic friendship with the nun is juxtaposed with her acceptance by the prostitutes.

Oharu is not in positions where she can make active decisions about herself and her life, relying on the judgements of her father and other male figures to decide her path. There are examples where she does hold firm on an issue, such as her refusal of the client in the cathouse, that led her to yet another banishment. It is said that this condition, by virtue of the commercial nature of this film and its production, is a direct reflection on the values of the Japanese society of the day. It is said in the Cohen article, however, that it is the use of shot-reverse-shot – a western convention, that portrays this patriarchy.

Her access to the “gaze” of the film is a central feature of this argument. She is “given” it, but that is only in the special circumstances of the temple. It is in the temple that she removes the cloth from her face, not hiding her age and her history, and she is allowed sexuality though the superimposition of her first lover’s face over the Buddha. It is this first lover that sets her standards and value set, a role that should be held by her “father”, hinting at her Oedipal complex. By introducing Freudian theory in this way, any power she asserts is drawn into question. That lapse into memory can be considered a Freudian “daydream,” and is the precursor to the “hysterical” female nature, a nature that is completely discrediting.

There is question as to her role as a “beggar” near the end of the film. Her position is ambiguous but it seems to have been decided that she has become a traveling nun, close to the role of a western monk. Carol Cavanaugh in her article asserts that by becoming a nun Oharu has taken control of herself in one of the few ways allowed by the society of the time. While removing herself from the sexual structure as a means of gaining control may not seem like a proper freedom in our current sexually “liberated” 90s, I can’t help but think it may have had different meaning to audiences when it was first released.

I, personally, don’t care for Freud and am suspect of much of the published reading of this film. It is my understanding that the use of the long-take, long-shot was meant to convey the role of women in society. However, I found this technique kept me from becoming emotionally connected with the characters except in the most cursory way and reminded me of early western film that had not developed a language wherein audiences could be expected to understand action if it was not all on the screen at once.


Marty’s Japanese Film Notes

These notes were compiled in the winter of 1999 as part of Marty’s studies at the Ontario College of Art & Design. They may contain references to ideas in texts and credit is given to the authors.