Kinuyo Tanaka as the titular protagonist of Kenji Mizoguchi's "The Life of Oharu"
Kinuyo Tanaka as the titular protagonist of Kenji Mizoguchi's "The Life of Oharu"

Director Kenji Mizoguchi's "The Life of Oharu" (1952), newly available in a high-def digital restoration from the Criterion Collection, teems with contradictions. It's epic yet delicate, set in feudal Japan but animated by modern anxieties, at once a traditional picaresque and a bold feminist classic.

These tensions emerge from the film's first moments, as Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka), an aging prostitute, shields herself from the night chill. Against heavy shadows, Mizoguchi levies painterly backdrops -- a brushstroke of clouds, distant dabs of garden -- and even a bit of grim humor. Recounting her humiliation at the hands of an elderly sage earlier that night, Oharu remarks wryly that the man considered her "a lesson in karmic retribution."

Nothing could be further from the truth. The extended flashback to Oharu's past that comprises the majority of the film's 136-minute running time is a series of unfortunate events, a downward cascade of indignities that Oharu resists but rarely instigates. To modern eyes, her crime -- the hubris to assert woman's will in a patriarchal society -- seems a brave, failed gambit, a revolution of one.

Mizoguchi juxtaposes this bleak decline from noblewoman to beggar with gorgeous compositions, as if to say the gleam of prosperity is little more than gilding on shit. The symmetrical balance of two figures raking the already perfect grass in an ornate compound, or the layered choreography of strollers in a sunny park, belie the director's disgust at Oharu's society -- and his own.  

Refracted through period detail, "The Life of Oharu" examines the rapid modernization of postwar Japan with much the same ambivalence as Yasujiro Ozu's "Tokyo Story" (1953). Where Ozu's tender, regretful picture laments the disconnection wrought by this new world, Mizoguchi bears acid witness to its greed. A businessman bows at the pile of money a client pours on the floor; workers scramble, like ants to molasses, for stray coins; Oharu's father positively salivates at the prospect of selling her into concubinage.