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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 1.33:1 Standard
  • Japanese PCM Mono
  • English subtitles
  • 1 Disc
FEATURES
  • New audio commentary for the opening of the movie by film scholar Dudley Andrew
  • Mizoguchi's Art and the Demimonde, an illustrated audio essay featuring Andrew
  • The Travels of Kinuyo Tanaka, a 2009 film by Koko Kajiyama documenting the actor's 1949 goodwill tour of the United States

The Life of Oharu

Blu-ray
Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Kenji Mizoguchi
Starring: Kinuyo Tanaka, Toshiro Mifune, Masao Shimizu
1952 | 137 Minutes | Licensor: Toho Co.

Release Information
Blu-ray | MSRP: $39.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #664
RLJ Entertainment

Release Date: July 9, 2013
Review Date: July 7, 2013

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SYNOPSIS

A peerless chronicler of the soul who specialized in supremely emotional, visually exquisite films about the circumstances of women in Japanese society, Kenji Mizoguchi had already been directing movies for decades when he made The Life of Oharu in 1952. But this epic portrait of an inexorable fall from grace, starring the astounding Kinuyo Tanaka as an imperial lady-in-waiting who gradually descends to street prostitution, was the movie that gained the director international attention, ushering in a new golden period for him.

Forum members rate this film 8/10

 

Discuss the film and Blu-ray here   


PICTURE

The Criterion Collection releases Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on this dual-layer disc. The film is presented in a new 1080p/24hz high-definition digital transfer.

I admit to feeling a slight bit of disappointment upon first starting the film up: while the transfer certainly looked perfectly fine the print showed obvious wear-and-tear. There are some heavy scratches throughout the frame, some obvious blotches, fuzziness around all objects on screen, heavy wear on the sides of the frame, and obvious pulsating. Then the source drastically improves over 20-minutes in, and the damage becomes less prevalent.

The transfer notes explain the reason for this: the new transfer comes primarily from a 35mm master positive struck from the original negative, but this source was missing the first reel, so the first portion of the film instead comes from a 35mm duplicate negative, which I can only assume was in worse shape. That’s not to say the remainder of the film is perfect but the damage is not as noticeable. At worst there are very fine scratches throughout, and I should stress that they’re very fine, only noticeable if you’re looking closely. The rest of its issues are few and far between, with a few chemical stains and some instances of mold, along with heavy damage during some transitions between scenes. Minor marks and debris are scattered about, along with scratches on the edge of the frame, and pulsating, though not as heavy as the first portion of the film. There also appear to be some missing frames here and there.

The digital transfer itself is very strong throughout, and we get an exceptionally sharp picture thanks to it. Contrast looks decent, with deep blacks and distinct gray levels. It also lacks any noticeable artifacts and renders the grain structure naturally.

The source materials can show their age but as a whole the restoration is excellent, further enhanced by an exceptional digital transfer.

7/10

All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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AUDIO

The age of the film becomes obvious in the Blu-ray’s lossless PCM mono track. Though it’s free of any heavy damage the track has no fidelity, its delivery coming off flat and lifeless in the end. There’s an edge to voices and the music, which can be also very harsh.

It’s been cleaned up nicely but hampered by the original materials.

5/10

SUPPLEMENTS

Since this film was actually a bit of an art-house hit I was surprised that Criterion didn’t go all out with this release.

Film scholar Dudley Andrew gets his own section of the supplements first providing an illustrated audio essay called Mizoguchi’s Art and the Demimonde. The 19-minute feature goes briefly over Mizoguchi’s early career (most of the films now lost) and then his “ho-hum” period after the war. Concentrating primarily on Utamaro and his Five Women, a film made about 5 years before The Life of Oharu, he looks at Mizoguchi’s influences, principally made up of 17th and 18th century art and theater, and his presentation of women in his films. It was during the making of this film that he started his initial work on The Life of Oharu, changing the satirical novel on which it was based into more of a melodrama.

Andrew then provides a short 28-minute audio commentary, which runs over the first episode of the film. Here he explains how this opening act helps set up the viewer in how to watch the film. He also covers some of its production history, the casting, the relationship between Mizoguchi and the lead actress, Kinuyo Tanaka (and a controversy surrounding her visit to the States before the film was made,) and the importance of Toshiro Mifune in his brief appearance. He examines the framing and compositions, and the film’s acceptance by international audiences and critics. It’s a decent track, with some fine comments, but I can’t say I was sad it was so short.

An interesting inclusion, the next feature is a 31-minute short film called The Travels of Kinuyo Tanaka. Made in 2009 by director Koko Kajiyama, the film is put together from footage of Tanaka’s 1949 tour of the United States, which is mentioned a couple of times in Andrew’s features. Apparently this caused a slight stir back in Japan but this documentary doesn’t seem interested in covering that, instead just presenting the footage taken in a narrative covering her trip. Going as a “Goodwill Ambassador for the Arts” the trip sounds like it was set up as a way of bridging a gap between the two cultures after the war. She first visits Hawaii (still recovering from the Pearl Harbor attack) and pays her respects to soldiers fallen, while also performing at sold out shows to the Japanese that live there. She then moves on to the mainland, first hitting Hollywood (MGM Studios in particular) and meeting a wide array of stars including John Wayne, Joan Crawford, Van Johnson (who she apparently had a crush on,) Janet Leigh, and Ronald and Nancy Reagan, to name a few. She also meets Bette Davis, apparently an honour to Tanaka as she was widely considered back home the “Japanese Bette Davis”. The footage is silent, with sound effects and music placed over, by the final part of her trip, where she finds herself in Hawaii again, has audio and closes with an interview with her.

Though it doesn’t look too deeply into the apparent controversies that arose from the trip I thought it was a charming and rather interesting feature.

Gilberto Perez then provides a short essay on the film, with some comparisons to the novel on which it’s based.

Andrew’s contribution is decent and the short film on Tanaka’s trip to the west is a charming inclusion, but this release still feels shockingly slim on material.

6/10

CLOSING

The supplements don’t add a whole lot of value as a whole, but the transfer, despite some source problems, is another superb one from Criterion.


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