Take a basic narrative formula—an opportunity for escape is snatched away at the last minute—and repeat for 136 minutes, and you’ll have something close to a plot synopsis for The Life Of Oharu. Structured episodically, Kenji Mizoguchi’s masterful 1952 downer follows a samurai’s daughter—played by the great Kinuyo Tanaka—through a lifetime of humiliation; the movie’s pessimism is so thorough and nuanced that it registers not as an attitude, but as a complete worldview.
As in much of his later work, Mizoguchi adopts a perspective that is omniscient but never passive. Working in long, diagonal tracking shots that follow the movements of the characters without ever taking on their point of view, he creates a sense that the camera is an invisible observer. Close-ups are rare, yet every shot in The Life Of Oharu feels startlingly intimate, in part because Mizoguchi never gives the impression that the actors are performing for an audience; one thing that immediately sets his work apart from that of his contemporaries—and makes Oharu seem strikingly modern—is the sheer amount of time characters spend out of frame or with their backs to the camera. Viewers are left with the feeling that they are observing events instead of having something played for them.
This partly explains why Oharu—a “message movie” if there ever was one—never feels even remotely didactic. Out of the four period masterpieces directed by Mizoguchi during the last decade of his life—the others being Utamaro And His Five Women (1946), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho The Bailiff (1954)—Oharu is the most painfully personal. (Like the title character, Mizoguchi’s sister was effectively sold into prostitution by their father to cover debts.) Yet whatever anger Mizoguchi might have felt is sublimated into a detailed, unflinching style. He doesn’t point out the cruelty of the world, or that the repeatedly punished Tanaka’s only “crime” is being powerless; instead, he creates a filmic universe where these themes are observable facts. Those searching for an explanation of what film-theory types mean by mise-en-scène need look no further.
The Life Of Oharu was part of the first wave of Japanese films to be widely shown in the West; it helped establish Japanese cinema’s international reputation and made Mizoguchi into something of a critics’ darling abroad. Along with Mizoguchi’s subsequent films, it had a profound influence on the French New Wave—most pronounced in the work of Jacques Rivette and in Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie—and on other formally radical European filmmakers of the 1960s.
And yet The Life Of Oharu’s place in film history isn’t what makes it essential viewing. What makes the movie an enduring masterpiece—and makes Mizoguchi one of the 20th century’s major artists—is its ability to move, creating unforced sympathy for its title character. The Life Of Oharu avoids audience cues and emotional shortcuts. It’s a testament to cinema’s ability to not merely remind the viewer of emotions, but to serve as an honest-to-God emotional experience.
Also new this week:
Jim Muro’s gross-out video-store staple Street Trash—about a toxic liquor that turns winos into goopy mounds of brightly colored sludge—gets the Blu-ray treatment courtesy of Synapse Films. A readymade cult item if there ever was one, this 1987 horror comedy is distinguished by its flagrant tastelessness, general disregard for bodily integrity, and garish use of color. Speaking of the latter, Harmony Korine’s Day-Glo Spring Breakers (Lionsgate) finds its way on to home video this week; depending on who’s watching, it’s either a brilliant deconstruction of materialism or just as repetitive and dull as Korine’s other features.
The late-period Hammer gothic flick Hands Of The Ripper—which pits Jack The Ripper against his archenemy, psychoanalysis—is Synapse’s other Blu-ray release this week. Cult Epics, in the meantime, is putting out Private (also known as Do It), a comparatively late (2003) work by softcore auteur Tinto Brass. The film consists of six vignettes, though since Brass is better known for his ability to frame and light a woman’s behind than for his storytelling, the lack of a narrative throughline shouldn’t matter too much to his core audience of strict formalists who like curvaceous Italian women.
Andrew Niccol’s Stephanie Meyer adaptation The Host (Universal) hits stores the same week as a new Blu-ray of his directing debut, Gattaca (Image); only history will be able to tell which is truly the better film. Dror Moreh’s documentary The Gatekeepers (Sony) is built around interviews with all of the living former heads of Israel’s secret service; regardless of Moreh’s presentation or interview techniques, his subjects’ candor makes for fascinating viewing. From New Zealand comes Boy (Kino), an ’80s-set coming-of-age movie about a Maori kid who is obsessed with Michael Jackson. Tyler Perry’s Temptation (Lionsgate)—which bears the porny subtitle “Confessions Of A Marriage Counselor”—will make the perfect gift for people who like their moralizing served with a heaping dose of misogyny.
Colin Ferrell and Noomi Rapace star in Dead Man Down (Sony), the lackluster English-language debut of Niels Arden Oplev, director of the original film adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo; the film will lead people standing at Redbox kiosks across America to wonder whether they’ve seen this movie before. (They probably haven’t, but also sort of have). Speaking of movies with generic DVD covers and big name casts, Paul Weitz’s academic dramedy Admission (Universal) also drops this week.
Though Criterion already issued Stanley Donen’s perfectly entertaining Charade on Blu-ray in 2010, Universal is bringing out an inexpensive edition to celebrate the movie’s 50th anniversary. DIY types who don’t feel like buying some mass-produced corporate product will be happy to learn that, due to a legal loophole, Charade has been in the public domain for decades; anyone with a 35mm print and a 2K telecine is ready to make their own artisanal Charade Blu-rays, provided they overdub Henry Mancini’s score, which is covered by a different copyright.