By coincidence, Turner Classic Movies is showing William Wellman's Heroes For Sale as I write this review. It's a coincidence because Heroes For Sale is the movie Kenji Mizoguchi's 1952 film most reminds me of. Just as Heroes chronicles the ups and downs of one of society's victims, with an emphasis on the downs, Life of Oharu treats the fortunes and misfortunes of a promising young woman (Kinuyo Tanaka) whose life is cursed by one understandable mistake. She seems all the more accursed because the mistake is only in the eyes of her repressive society and culture in 17th century Japan. The mistake, to be specific, is that she fell for a humble retainer, a man beneath her class station. That the man is Toshiro Mifune, albeit almost unrecognizably clean-cut and romantic, matters not. Such a romance across class lines is a crime in the Tokugawa era. Oharu, along with her parents (for failing to raise her right, I guess) are exiled from court, while the Mifune character is decapitated, though not before dictating a last request that Oharu manage to find happiness with someone else someday.
For Oharu, the punishment must be like being sent back to live with your parents, only to have them evicted because of you. Her father certainly resents it and looks for every opportunity to exploit her in order to regain some of his former position or prestige. He hires her out to the local daimyo as a concubine who'll bear a child before being discarded. Dad expects at least 300 ryo for this, but only gets five. Too bad that he'd already bought some textiles on credit, expecting the bigger payoff. To help pay off dad's debts, Oharu is put to work as a courtesan. It looks like she'll find a sugar daddy in the form of a rich bumpkin who's been saving his coins for twenty years waiting to blow it all in town. Oharu intrigues him because she haughtily refuses to scramble like the other courtesans for the coins he scatters about the place. He offers to buy her off her employers while boasting to her that he'll find her price. Before he can leave with her, however, his money is revealed as counterfeit. A better man finally shows up: an expert fan maker who opens his own shop with Oharu as his salesperson, but this relative idyll ends abruptly when this rare good guy is mugged and murdered. From there the descent is swift, and before long Oharu is an aging street prostitute, as we found her at the start of the picture, all of the above being her flashback.
One more humiliation awaits. Rescued from her plight by her elderly mother, she's told that her son by the daimyo, now the daimyo himself, has invited Oharu to live with him in the palace. It turns out to be a set-up: Oharu is too much an embarrassment to everyone to be allowed to wander the world free. But before the authorities lock her up for life they allow her a Stella Dallas like look at her boy, whom she's never really known, as he takes his daily walk without acknowledging her existence. Somehow she manages to escape the grim fate planned for her, but the future she escapes to is hardly less grim. Just as Heroes For Sale ends with the hero's future still uncertain as he's driven out of town with a band of unemployed men, Oharu wraps with the heroine a Buddhist beggar going door to door as the soundtrack sings of vows to overcome the snares of earthly life. Mizoguchi toes the line between pessimism and philosophy. While Heroes still pays lip service to the American Dream, Oharu's close suggests that all dreams, like all desires, are hopeless, the only real hope being transcendence of desire. That's harsh for a movie that started with Oharu as a martyr for romantic love, but the song itself strikes an almost hopeful note with its beauty, even if the argument seems paradoxical: our only hope is to abandon hope, or at least one kind of hope in favor of another.
If anything, Mizoguchi's film may make you more indignant than the often furious Heroes, since at least some of the hero's misfortunes in the Wellman film can be written off to bad breaks, while Oharu is more consistently the victim of a vicious social system. In both cases, directorial craftsmanship softens the blow while making a point. Mizoguchi directs elegantly, relying often on fluid camera movements; his films that I've seen have always been enjoyable to watch regardless of the content. Oharu is a vehicle for Kinuyo Tanaka, regarded by many as Japan's greatest film actress, and while it may be stretching things for the 43 year old to play the young woman in the early scenes -- Mifune, more than a decade her junior, throws himself quite eagerly at a cougar's feet -- she hardly makes a false move thereafter. Oharu may seem like a thankless role, with one damn thing after another befalling her -- but Tanaka's poise and presence master the material and make Life of Oharu as much a tribute to female resilience as it is a protest against female victimization.