In 17th century Kyoto, a beautiful, young lady-in-waiting, Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka), falls in love with a low ranking page, Katsunosuke, (Toshiro Mifune). During a raid on a local lodging house, their affair is discovered, leading to her family’s exile, and Katsunosuke’s execution. When Lord Matsudaira (Toshiaki Konoe) dispatches an attendant from Edo to seek out a concubine to bear an heir and successor, Oharu’s father (Ichiro Sugai), obligingly offers his daughter for the ignominious task, believing that her services would bring him financial gain and favors from the court. In a subtly poignant, emotionally revealing scene, Lady Matsudaira (Hisako Yamane), is resigned to receive Oharu in court during the evening’s entertainment, attempting to mask her shame and contempt for her husband’s new mistress. After the birth of a son, Oharu’s station in Lord Matsudaira’s court proves temporary, as the council decides to send her back for fear of the lord’s growing fondness for her. Oharu’s father, who had grown accustomed to living beyond his means, is financially unprepared for Oharu’s homecoming, and promptly sells his daughter to a geisha house. Inevitably, even Oharu’s marriage to an honest, good hearted fan maker, Yakichi (Jukichi Uno), and postulancy at a Buddhist temple prove fleeting, and she is cast into the street. Alone and destitute, she resorts to prostitution.
Kenji Mizoguchi, considered to be one of the most compassionate directors of women, paints a caustic and harsh existence of a male dominated society in Life of Oharu. In contrast to the hopeful, life-affirming conclusions of Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, the tone of Life of Oharu is bleak and unforgiving. Visually, Mizoguchi uses thematic cycles to envelop the film with a sense of perpetual despair. The opening scene of a 50 year old Oharu slowly walking the dark, empty streets is repeated in chronological sequence, revealing a deeper subtext to an earlier, seemingly idle chatter with other prostitutes in the street. Oharu’s homecoming shows an aging former courtesan named Shimabara playing a shamisen (traditional string instrument), an act that is similarly performed by Oharu herself, years later. A bisected shot of Oharu leaving the Buddhist temple is reflected in the overhead, open market image of Oharu playing the shamisen, and in her departure from the house of a morally strict nun. Life of Oharu is a hauntingly transcendent and profoundly devastating portrait of a woman brought to ruin by the rigidity of social class: a cruel testament to the blind, hypocritical legacy of traditional honor, virtue, and duty.
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