There have been many films made about prostitutes, courtesans and concubines, but in Kenji Mizoguchi 1952 film The Life of Oharu the principal is all three. However, it’s more in the territory of Raise the Red Lantern or Farewell My Concubine than Pretty Woman. Whilst prostitutes tend to be gin-soaked cockneys in British period dramas, their Japanese counterparts have always retained a certain mystique. Their role and function in society more concrete.

Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) comes from a distinguished background. After her love affair with a page (Toshirō Mifune) is discovered, her family are disgraced and banished. Struggling to eke out an existence, they sell Oharu to a rich Lord. After fulfilling her duties and producing an heir, she is cast out. Her fortunes continue to decline, everything she ties eventually ending in failure.

The Life of Oharu us a tragedy. A tragedy of misfortune, bad luck and a downward spiral which can’t be arrested. Mizoguchi beautifully captures the period through his lens. It’s a heart-breaking tale of the treatment women had to endure in 17th century Japan. Whilst it could easily lapse into melodrama, the story is told in a straightforward episodic fashion which illustrates the horror without dwelling on it. The Life of Oharu is an epic tale of misfortune, loss and prejudice. There is poetry amongst the sadness.

Special Features:

  • New, restored high-definition digital film transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
  • New audio commentary for the opening of the movie by film scholar Dudley Andrew
  • Mizoguchi’s Art and the Demimonde, an illustrated audio essay featuring Andrew
  • The Travels of Kinuyo Tanaka, a 2009 film by Koko Kajiyama documenting the actor’s 1949 goodwill tour of the United States
  • New English subtitle translation
  •  A booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Gilberto Perez

The Life of Oharu is released on Blu-ray by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment as part of the Criterion Collection on Monday.