The Life of Oharu

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The Life of Oharu
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi
Produced by Hideo Koi
Kenji Mizoguchi
Isamu Yoshiji (executive producer)
Koi Productions
Written by Saikaku Ihara (novel)
Kenji Mizoguchi
Yoshikata Yoda
Starring Kinuyo Tanaka
Tsukie Matsuura
Ichirō Sugai
Toshiro Mifune
Takashi Shimura
Music by Ichirō Saitō
Cinematography Yoshimi Hirano
Yoshimi Kono
Edited by Toshio Gotō
Distributed by Shintoho
Release dates
April 17, 1952 (Japan)[1]
Running time
148 min.
Country Japan
Language Japanese

The Life of Oharu 西鶴一代女, Saikaku Ichidai Onna, "Saikaku's Amorous Woman" is a 1952 historical fiction black-and-white film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi starring Kinuyo Tanaka as Oharu, a one-time concubine of a daimyo (and mother of a later daimyo) who struggles to escape the stigma of having been forced into prostitution by her father. It is based on a novel by Ihara Saikaku.

The film tells a story that uses the experiences of a struggling courtesan to examine the issues of class and rigid hierarchy in Japanese society in the Edo period.[citation needed]

A scene from the movie showing palace of daimyō in Edo period.


The Life of Oharu is based on various stories from Ihara Saikaku's The Life of an Amorous Woman. It was produced by the Shintoho Company, with cinematography by Yoshimi Hirano and screenplay by Yoshikata Yoda.

It has been claimed that this movie was one of Kenji Mizoguchi's favorite projects, even though it was under-financed. Other crew members included production designer Hiroshi Mizutani and historical consultant Isamu Yoshi.


The Life of Oharu won the International Prize at the 1952 Venice International Film Festival and was nominated to Golden Lion. The film (include 1952 films Himitsu, Inazuma and Okaasan) won 1953 Mainichi Film Concours for best film score (Ichirō Saitō).[2]


Toshiro Mifune as page Katsunosuke, who courted Oharu

The story opens on Oharu as an old woman in a temple flashing back through the events of her life. It begins with her love affair with a page, Katsunosuke (Toshirō Mifune), the result of which (due to their class difference) is his execution and her family's banishment. Oharu attempts suicide but fails and is sold to be the mistress of Lord Matsudaira with the hope she will bear him a son. She does, but then is sent home with minimal compensation to the dismay of her father, who has worked up quite a debt in the meantime. He sends her to be a courtesan, but there, too, she fails and is again sent home. She goes to serve the family of a woman who must hide the fact that she is bald from her husband. The woman becomes jealous of Oharu and makes her chop off her hair, but Oharu retaliates, revealing the woman's secret. She again must leave—this time she marries a fan maker who is killed shortly after during a robbery. She attempts to become a nun, but Oharu is thrown out after being caught naked with a man seeking reimbursement for an unauthorized gift (it is made clear this is rape by Oharu's claims and distraught demeanor). She is thrown out of the temple, becomes a prostitute, but fails even at that. In the end, she is recalled to the Lord's house in order to keep secret her activities and to be exiled within the compounds to keep her secrets locked away. While being scolded for the life she chose, she attempts to find her son, and in the process, ends up running away as she chooses the life of a beggar over the life in exile.

Gender issues[edit]

Kinuyo Tanaka as Oharu, the mistress of Lord Matsudaira
Kinuyo Tanaka as Oharu, the old poor woman

Oharu faces some major conflicts of interest as her role as a woman in society changes with each stage she enters. During the course of her entire life, she is portrayed as having little autonomy, and made to be utterly dependent on male authorities for her social position as well as her personal happiness. Japanese forms of patriarchy are revealed as Oharu is continually objectified as the sexual and domestic property of men as well as women of higher caste, from being chosen for her perfect face and perfect body by the Lord Matsudaira's servant, to her sole purpose as a concubine of Lord Matsudaira to produce his male heir, to being forced into prostitution by her father. Furthermore, her role in 17th Century Japanese society is greatly strained as she was originally cast aside from her role as a member of court for choosing her own lover. It is Oharu's original and later refusals to obey such patriarchal systems of gendered labour through making her own decisions that precipitate her descent through the class system and into depression.[citation needed]


The director of The Life of Oharu, Kenji Mizoguchi, is considered one of the masters of what is often called the Golden Age of Japanese cinema, which occurred during the Allied postwar Occupation of Japan. Mizoguchi's films were influenced heavily by his childhood. Events such as the loss of his sister and mother through sale to a geisha house and death, respectively, as well as his father's inability to take care of his family played a major role in deciding what kind of films Mizoguchi would come to direct. The Occupation and its devastating after-effects also played a role in his later films, revealed through theme or direct content, such as in his last film, Street of Shame which related the period's sexual violence, proliferating military brothels, and increased poverty. This particular film was made during the last years of the Occupation. Common themes in Mizoguchi's films are sudden changes in class, oppressive male figures of authority, and the female protagonist who sacrifices everything for others only to have her life ruined. Mizoguchi experienced all of these at some level as he grew up in Tokyo. These themes are most prevalent in his films: Osaka Elegy, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, The Life of Oharu, Sansho the Bailiff, Ugetsu, and Street of Shame. Films such as these helped establish Mizoguchi's reputation as a feminist director.

Cast and main characters[edit]

Oharu and fictional daimyo Lord Harutaka Matsudaira (Toshiaki Konoe).
Hisako Yamane as Lady Matsudaira.

See also[edit]


External links[edit]