Monday, July 8, 2013
The Goblin Cat
A silent reaction to words spoken, not to her but about her, flits across the face of Oharu, played by Kinuyo Tanaka, late in Kenji Mizoguchi's The Life of Oharu, which Criterion is releasing on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow. I keep wanting to call this film The Fall of Oharu, probably because of Mizoguchi's series of "fallen women" pictures, and also because Oharu's life is the story of her fall. At the point in the film when the moment I'm revving up to describe occurs, Oharu has gone from a young upper-class woman whose love affair with a young man (Toshiru Mifune) who is beneath her standing, to a middle-aged prostitute, carried along the sluice of late 17th century Japanese propriety, the jaw-dropping penalties when that propriety is breached, and, occasionally, old fashioned bad luck and tragedy. But mostly it's just being a woman in Japan at that time which does her in, and Mizoguchi is elegantly ruthless about it all. Oharu can do nothing to extract herself. She fell in love outside of her class, so she and her family are banished. Her family's good name is ruined, so to earn money she must become a prostitute. She must become a rich man's concubine when his wife becomes barren, which might save her family, but her past ruins even that, at least somewhat remunerative, indignity. And so on, without ease.
Also fascinating about this shot is the distance Mizoguchi's camera is from Kinuyo Tanaka. Now you must forgive me here, and The Life of Oharu is not even my first Mizoguchi film; it's my fourth, if you simply must keep score. To be specific, prior to this I'd seen Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, and, something of a left-field relative obscurity here, his four-hour The 47 Ronin. But that was all some time ago, and it wasn't until I watched The Life of Oharu that I noticed his positive phobia of close-ups. I've since gathered that this is actually part of Mizoguchi's whole deal, or was for a while anyway, but it was gratifying to be struck by it cold. But enough about me. The Life of Oharu is, of course, rife with the absence of close-ups, but it rang a particular tone at the moment when Oharu reacts to be called a "goblin cat," because I can't imagine another director, from the great ones to the shit ones, who wouldn't have either cut to her face, or let his or her camera drift to the right, maybe push in a little, something to highlight her, even if only slightly. Her face, at this moment, is in a sense the entire film in a one-second shadow, however, should we prefer to do so, we could look at the pilgrims instead -- Buddusky in that scene from The Last Detail may not have been in a strict close-up, but his face is pretty much the only thing we have to look at. And it's not as though Mizoguchi frames this shot so that Oharu is the visual equal of the pilgrims, but the viewer does have options. As Mizoguchi films it, there is a world apart from Oharu. There is a world that is, in fact, doing this to her.
And once you've gotten your teeth into the concept that The Life of Oharu completely lacks one of the most basic shots in filmmaking, you can't quite let it go, and everything else in the film must be considered alongside it. Towards the end -- and I'll tread lightly here -- after the "goblin cat" scene, the film's climax occurs within a frankly magnificent tracking shot, during which Oharu's face must tell the story of her life even more starkly than in the shot described above, yet we see her much less clearly. (I would be remiss, by the way, if I didn't mention the score by Ichiro Saito, which is generally wonderful and here achieves an eerie brilliance.) The tracking shot is about ceremony, which the "goblin cat" was not, at least not officially. The tracking shot chronicles something official, though, and a futile attempt to make the ceremony recognize something other than itself. In a general way -- or maybe a very specific way, depends on your definition, I suppose -- Oharu is the victim of ceremony, and by putting her at this particular distance from the camera, it's rather striking how lightly she glances off what is proper in her society.