Presented in a manner as eerie as it is heartbreaking, this film is a gorgeous supernatural fable about the folly of men with dreams larger than their abilities and their women who suffer as a result. Genjuro (Masuyaki Mori) is a potter who longs for wealth and luxury, while Tobei (Sakae Ozawa), a farmer, dreams of the glories of the samurai to the point of ignoring his wife. Though a war rages around them, they venture to town to sell their wares. Genjuro becomes bewitched by a beautiful though vengeful ghost (Machiko Kyo), while his wife is murdered by a soldier; Tobei becomes a noted warrior, while his wife descends into prostitution after being raped while searching for her husband.
Life of Oharu features Kinuyo Tanaka in the title role. Oharu is a middle-aged prostitute in 17th century Japan. As she prays before a statue of Buddha, Oharu reviews her past. Her road to degradation began when, as a teenager, she disgraced her family by falling in love with a samurai (Toshiro Mifune). Oharu became the mistress of a prince, who cast her off after she bore his son. She was then sold into prostitution by her father, and thus began a catch-as-catch-can existence alternating between brief happiness with those she genuinely loved and servitude to those she despised. A potential happy ending, reuniting her with her royal son, is dashed by the much-maligned Oharu herself, who opts for the life of a beggar. Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, a lifelong advocate of equitable treatment for Japanese women, Life of Oharu was adapted from a novel by Saikaku Ibara.
A man returns from World War II to find his desperate wife has resorted to one night of prostitution to pay for their son's hospital bills.
"Actress" is not just the story that charts the rise of Kinuyo Tanaka, played brilliantly by Sayuri Yoshinaga, who mesmerized and illuminated the screen with her charismatic performance of a legend, from her naively youthful days in pigtails, to coiffed professional veteran of the industry. We see how she started off in the studio system being one of many potential talents available, having her family's economical hopes all pinned on her, and down to having a sugar daddy of sorts in Hiroshi Shimizu (Toru Watanabe) looking over her shoulder, whom she would get into and out of an unhappy secret marriage.
Koibumi (love letter or love letters) is a melodrama about a sundered pair of lovers who meet again after the war and have to try to rebuild a relationship in the light of her occupation relationship with US servicemen. The title refers to the letters written by abandoned Japanese girls to their absent occupation force lovers declaring love - and asking for money. The bitter man of the pair ends up writing letters in English for a small sum and finds himself encountering his long lost love but has trouble dealing with her past and his own prejudices. Although this is not new territory for Japanese film makers it is a sensitive and powerful film and well worth watching.
I think that it is fantastic to see that Kenji Mizoguchi's films are slowly making their way to Blu-ray. The Life of Oharu, one of the Japanese master's best films, now looks quite wonderful, and I cannot recommend it highly-enough to anyone interested in classic Japanese cinema. I would also like to encourage you to consider adding to your collections The Mizoguchi Collection, which contains four Mizoguchi's films, including the terrific Utamaro and His Five Women and Osaka Elegy, that are no currently available on Blu-ray in North America. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.