Wednesday 13 May 2015

The life of Oharu (Saikaku ichidai onna)

"When you return to your homes, you can tell everyone how you met a real goblin cat." The titular character of the movie tells that to a group of pilgrims who try to gauge the story of her life by raising a candle to look at her face. Oharu is a victim, a survivor of tragedies and vicissitudes that either break a person or make them insensate. But nothing breaks her, as she rises from the ashes of the fires the society sets her on and chooses life over obliteration each time.

It's the seventeenth century Japanese society that has no place to contain the free will of a woman. Oharu is a prostitute of 50. She wonders how she can't make herself pass for a 20 year old and get more business. Hearing bells, she turns to a temple; maybe not for the same reasons one generally does, maybe because she feels like finding a moment of peace. As she looks at the statues inside, she begins to revisit the events of her life that made her what she is. We learn she fell in love once and that it never reached a culmination. We learn how she gets thrown into the chaos of a society that knows no better than to commodify a woman of ill fate. It has been a sad sad life and you get to empathize with her if not relate. The story returns to the present to provide her one last chance at respite. Does she get it? - is all that remains to be found.

The life of Oharu is replete with scenes so powerful they can move the heart of a stone. One of the major one has been mentioned earlier whereby Oharu gets hired by an old man as she is looking for some business. He takes her to an inn. As she moves in, a group of pilgrims gather around her to look at her face in candlelight. She tries to hide it but can't. The old man then goes about giving a lesson of Karmic retribution to the young pilgrims citing how a life indulged in materialism rots. They seem ignorant to say the least. They pay her up and ask her to leave. As she is about to, something dawns upon her. She retaliates as the frustrations of a life the people before her cannot even fathom come to her in pieces. She teases them for calling her a goblin cat. The scene immediately takes upon you. Seldom do you see anything like it on screen and seldom is something like that filmed.

Another key moment is when Oharu asks her companions to look at the statues in the temple. "It looks like him", she says. She asks them to find the faces of men they know in the statues. They do. They laugh it off. It tells us something about their lives. You cannot put it in words; neither can they. But they see it on those statues. They don't really see those faces- they see their lives in them.

Kenji Mizoguchi has shot the movie mostly with an angled camera. Seldom do you see anything happening straight to the line of sight. You need to find that willingness to observe what is more relevant in the scene. Maybe he does so because he does not want us to look for cruelty in the characters. Maybe because he wants to talk about women and the society without really blaming the people but the times. By doing so, he wants to convey how with the passage of time, the society needs to integrate the consciousness of womanhood and its power within itself. He does that by making a journey through the life of a woman which tries to side with spirituality but can't. The story lets Oharu survive but is it something she would have chosen?

Bandwidth verdict- Every great revolution in history comes out of stories that they forget to write in history. Oharu's life is probably one of the greatest of such fables..

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