Our actions, choices and experiences shape who we are. Oharu's downward spiral is never shown as excessively sympathetic, we are shown how decisions bring consequences and thus change ones character. In this case, the era is very unforgiving to Oharu & women in general, Oharu wonders like an empty vessel searching for happiness & love but cannot escape her past actions. Epic yet lyrical and poetic.
Life for Mizoguchi's women is a seemingly inexhaustible source of pain, and it is this pain that drives Oharu--played by the inimitable Kinuyo Tanaka--into complete and utter despair but ultimately towards an acute and transcendent(?) awareness that there is nothing on this earth that can provide any lasting state of happiness.
Simultaneously, an apogee of the narrative classic system, with centralized figures in the frame and a camera that fits/frames them while perspectives a becoming constantly reshaped and accentuated - the best travellings ever made are from Mizoguchi -, being also a reading of women's role in a feudal society that even today, in our frustrated contemporary, remains regrettably acutely, of an over-romantic dimension.
There was a big difference in my emotional response to "Sansho" and "Ugetsu" compared to Oharu. In the first two, I became 100 percent invested in the characters and their specific circumstances. The impact in this one was thematic, when I thought about how cruel the action of "ownership" can become, specifically of the lives of women at this time.
"You're no different from a fish on a chopping board. We can serve you up any way we like." So says a proud man to a woman. But the woman, Oharu, is the beating heart of this ruthlessly simple story. With a surgeon's scalpel, Mizoguchi exposes the cancer that makes such a proud society possible. And this story, like a mediaeval folk ballad, reveals, like Kafka's The Trial, an entire universe of rejection and pain.
The world outside of Japan finally sat up and took notice of Kenji Mizoguchi in 1952 with the release of THE LIFE OF OHARU, the director's exquisitely sad tale of a lady in waiting who, through a series of unfortunate events and tragedies, falls from grace to become a prostitute. His flair for strong female characters is on full display here, centering around Kinuyo Tanaka's mesmerizing performance in the title role.