The Life of Oharu (1952)

Here is the saddest film I have ever seen about the life of a woman. It begins on a chill dawn when the heroine wanders, her face behind a fan, until encountering some of her fellow prostitutes. “It’s hard for a 50-year-old women to pass as 20,” she observes. She says it has been a slow night: She was only picked up by an old man, who took her into a candlelit room filled with young men. “Look at this painted face!” he told them. “Do you still want to buy a woman?” To be held up as a moral spectacle is a cruel fate for a woman who has been treated immorally almost every day of her life, and who has always behaved as morally as it was within her power to do.


The women find a friend who has built a fire, and huddle around it. “I heard you served at the palace,” another prostitute says. “What has led to your ruin?” Saying “do not ask about my past,” she walks away from them and wanders into a Buddhist temple. One of the images of the Buddha dissolves into the face of a young man, and then a flashback begins that will tell Oharu’s life from near the beginning.

Her life is the fate in microcosm of many Japanese women for centuries, in a society ruled by a male hierarchy. Kenji Mizoguchi, its director, was as sympathetic with women as any of his contemporaries, even Ozu, who whom he is often ranked. He made prostitutes a frequent subject, as in his “Street of Shame” (1956). He was known to frequent brothels, not simply to purchase favors, but to socialize with their workers; it made a great impression on him that his own sister, Suzo, who raised him, was sold by their father as a geisha. The same thing happens to Oharu in this film.

The character is played by Kinuyo Tanaka, who appeared in 14 of his films, and this one, made in 1952, helped redirect her career from early years as in ingénue toward more challenging roles. One of her strengths as Oharu is her success at playing the same character over a period of 30 years.

As Oharu’s flashback begins, we learn she was born in respectable circles, and was a lady in waiting at the court when she and a young page (Toshiro Mifune) fell in love. This was forbidden, the page was condemned to death, and Oharu and his family were exiled. Her father never forgives her for this, and indeed after the scandal she becomes unmarriagable in respectable circles. There is a brief respite when he is able to sell her as a concubine into the household of Lord Matsudaira. Her duty there is to bear him an heir, which she does, but then is coldly sent back into poverty and prostitution. Her father, who now considers her entirely in terms of her wage-earning ability, sells her as a courtesan, at which she balks, and finally sells her into service as a maid to a lady who uses elaborate wigs to conceal from her husband that she is half-bald. She loses this job because one of her employer’s customers recognizes her from the shimabara (red-light district) and makes crude jokes which reveal her background.

Now comes a deceptive respite from her misery. She meets a nice man, a maker of fans, and settles in peacefully, but he is killed. She receives no legacy. In a convent, she tells the superior she wanted none: “All I want is to be a nun and be near to Buddha.” In the convent, there is an ambiguous scene. A man who knew her comes to demand repayment for a gift of cloth she was given, and in a fury she strips off her clothing and hurls it at him. Her nudity is reflected only in the man’s eye, but the discovery of this event leads to her banishment from the convent.

All of this time she dreams of seeing the son she gave birth to, but when this finally happens she is allowed only to get a glimpse of him sweeping past as a grand man, oblivious to her existence. That brings us back to her current life, as a cold, hungry, unsuccessful prostitute.

Although a good deal of the film is shot in a straightforward way, some of it from Ozu’s favorite the point of view of a person seated on a tatami mat, Oharu is often seen from a high-angle view well above eye level. In camera grammar this tends to diminish and objectify the subject, and Oharu increasingly comes to seem less like an autonomous character and more like a subject for study–and pity.

“As the story goes,” the superior told her on arrival at the convent, “the morning’s pretty face is a corpse by evening.”

The story as I have outlined it sounds like a lurid melodrama, but “Life of Oharu” studiously avoids taking advantage of the sensational aspects of her life. It is all told as a sad memory of fate, and paced by Mizoguchi to avoid any sensational story climaxes. His attentive use of period locations, costumes and rituals makes his heroine’s experiences more like enactments of a ritual. A great deal of the story’s pathos comes from the fact that no one except Oharu knows the whole of her life history; she is judged from the outside as an immoral and despicable women, and we realize this is no more than the role society has cast her in, and forces her to play.

We watch the film in disbelief. Surely no women could have such misery thrust upon her through no fault of her own? Mizoguchi makes no attempt to portray any male character–even the father–as a self-aware villain. The men behave within the boundaries set for them and expected of them by the traditions of their society. Even the fan maker does so, but because of the independence given him by his occupation, society allows him more choice–or perhaps simply doesn’t care.

Kenji Mizoguchi (1898-1956) is today named as one of the three greatest Japanese directors, along with Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. Kurosawa, considered the most “western” by the Japanese, was the first to gain world wide fame, with such readily accessible films as “Rashomon,” “The Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo.” Ozu was considered “too Japanese,” until the critic Donald Richie famously took a group of his films to the Venice Film Festival, and found, as he expected, that they had a universal appeal. (My feeling is that the more specific a film is, the more widely it may be understood).

Mizoguchi won Western praise earlier than Ozu. His “Ugetsu Monogatari” (1953) won the Venice Film Festival, and twice appeared on Sight & Sound magazine’s ten-yearly poll of the greatest films of all time, which pointed me to him in the early 1970s. But it was “Life of Oharu” that he considered his best film, perhaps because it drew from roots in his own life.

The most influential Western writing on Mizoguchi is an essay by Robert Cohen titled “Why Does Oharu Faint?” The British critic who signs as “Kubla Khan” writes of it: “Oharu faints thrice in ‘The Life of Oharu,’ and on all occasions, wakes up feeling kinder and more forgiving… Cohen says that Oharu’s spiritual transcendence is gained after ‘she abandons her gender identity and sexuality,’ and in a sense, her victory is only pyrrhic.” He adds that is “is far more interesting and appealing than any spiritual excuse that could account for how Oharu has become a saintly character and her fainting spell at the beginning and in the end is more a physical and psychological surrender to the awful life that she has lead till then.”

Years before the rise of feminism in the West, the great directors of Japan were obsessed with the lives of women in their society. No woman in a Japanese film that I have seen is more tragic and unforgettable than Oharu.

The film’s Criterion edition is streaming on Hulu Plus. It can be viewed in in nine parts via non-Criterion but quite good edition on YouTube. Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu” and “Sansho the Bailiff” are also written about in my Great Movies Collection, which includes many titles by Ozu and Kurosawa.

Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Drama, Foreign, Indie, Mystery

Rated Unrated

115 minutes

For its 60th anniversary, a restored digital presentation will play at the Music Box, April 22-28.

The young priest only smiles once. It is on the day he leaves the cruel country town to catch a train and see a doctor. A passing motorcyclist gives him a lift to the station, and as he climbs on behind him we see a flash of the boy inside the sad man. It is a nice day, it’s fun to race though the breeze, and he is leaving behind the village of Ambricourt.

For the rest of the time in Robert Bresson’s “The Diary of a Country Priest” (1951), the young man’s face scarcely betrays an emotion. He looks solemn, withdrawn, stunned by the enormity of his job. His faith and vocation are real to him, but the parishioners in Ambricourt scorn and insult him, and tell lies about him. He is unwilling or unable to defend himself. He cannot understand the hostility. He keeps a daily journal in which he records his actions, which seem futile to him.

This film is the story of a man who seems in the process of offering himself to God as a sacrifice. He lives only on bread, wine and a little potato soup. He gives up meat and vegetables. Whether this is because his stomach won’t hold down anything else or whether his diet is destroying his health is unclear until later. He is thin and weak, he coughs up blood, he grows faint in the houses of parishioners, one late night he falls in the mud and cannot get up.

It is a bleak winter. The landscape around his little church is barren. There is often no sign of life except for the distant, unfriendly barking of dogs. His church and the manor of the local count are closed off behind bars, as if gated against each other. Girls in catechism class play tricks on him. The locals gossip that he’s a drunk, because of his diet, but we never see him drunk. Bresson often fills the frame with his face, passive, and the stare of his unfocused eyes.

“Diary of a Country Priest” has been called one of the two greatest Catholic films, along with Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” I see them both as tragedies about true believers in the face of cruel societies. Both lives end in death, as Christ’s did. The priest goes about his duties. He says a daily Mass, often attended by only one person — and her motive is not spiritual. He calls on the people in his parish, so weak he can hardly speak with them, crossing their names from a list and stumbling back into the cold. A local man quarrels with him about the cost of his wife’s funeral. People sneer at him as “the little priest.”

He tries to counsel the governess of the count’s daughter, who the count is having an affair with. The count insults him. The daughter is angry with her father and everyone else. The countess knows of the affair but doesn’t care; she lost her son at a young age, and is still in mourning. In the great scene that supplies the center of the film, the priest urges the countess to have faith and accept Christ’s love, and she undergoes a remarkable spiritual rebirth. Even this conversation is lied about and held against him.

Robert Bresson does nothing in a superficial way to please his audiences. The rewards of his films unfold slowly from their stories, and pierce deeply. He is very serious about human nature and the indifference of the world. He is not a Catholic but an agnostic who values any consolation his characters can find, in or out of faith.

His visual strategy doesn’t break scenes down into easy storytelling elements but regards them as unyielding facts. In this film he opens and closes many passages with old-fashioned iris shots, reproducing the act of opening our eyes to the world, seeing its reality, and closing them again. There is a lot of background music, some of it vaguely spiritual, some of it saccharine, all of it more ironic than consoling. The look seems dark and depressing at first, but his films live not in the moment but in their complete length, and for the last hour I was more spellbound than during a thriller. Bresson does nothing to make me “like” the priest, but my empathy was urgently involved.

Bresson (1901-1999) was one of the great figures in the French cinema. In 50 years he made only 13 features. I saw the final one, “L’Argent,” at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, and recall that the press screening was unlike those of most directors; you would have thought the critics were in church. It is ironic that his films are more deeply spiritual than, in my opinion, anyone else’s. He did not believe, but he respected belief, and hope.

Not for his characters the consolations of tidy plots and snappy conversations. They are faced with the existential dilemma: What is the point of life when its destination is death? In “The Diary of a Country Priest,” the young hero welcomes the advice he receives from the local doctor and the old priest of a nearby parish. The doctor examines him, observes all the local people have been weakened by the alcoholism of their parents, warns him is undernourished, admonishes him, “face up to it!” The priest (as only a French priest might) attributes some of his problems to the fact that he doesn’t drink better wine. The priest’s advice is kind, practical, involved with the management of a parish. He treats the young man like a son. We sense he is a good old man and a good priest, but wary of devotion carried to dangerous extremes.

The star of this film, Claude Laydu, can hardly be seen to act at all. In life he was quite lively, and indeed hosted a TV show for children. Bresson had a famous theory that actors were “models.” He didn’t require them to act, and indeed would repeat a shot time and time again to remove visible signs of “acting.” The scenario, the visual strategy and the editing would encompass his story. The actor must not seem too proactive because his character is after all only a figure pushed here and there by life and fate. This sounds like a severe artistic discipline, but the result can be purifying. After emerging from one of his films, you may sometimes see conventional movie acting as foolish: The characters actually believe they can influence the outcome!

A film like “Diary of a Country Priest” gathers its strength as it continues. There’s always the sense that Bresson knows exactly where he’s going and the simplest way to get there. Consider the devastating effect of the priest’s journey to visit a specialist in Lisle. We never even hear the second doctor’s opinion. We learn it through the journal, read aloud, as all through the film key moments are narrated. After leaving the doctor’s office the priest goes to visit a friend of his from the seminary, now living a secular life in poverty because of illness, and seeks this man (who is living in sin) because he is still, after all, a priest, and can offer consolation and absolution.

One thing we are sure of is that the “little country priest” takes his vocation and faith very seriously. Nor does the film question them. It is about precisely the dilemma we must all face: How far can our ideas support us in the approach to death? The young priest’s ideas prove to sustain him in the final moments, but they did little earlier to console him. He leaves behind a world of cruelty and petty ignorance. He did nothing deserving blame.

Notes: The hand and handwriting in the film belong to Bresson. “The Diary of a Country Priest”is in national release in 2011 in a new digital presentation commissioned for its 60th anniversary. In my Great Movies series I’ve also written about Bresson’s “Pickpocket” and “Au Hazard Balthazar.”