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Saikaku ichidai onna / Diary of O-Haru (1952, Kenji Mizoguchi)

A courtlady falls in love with a man of lower social standing. As the two lovers are discovered the woman falls steeply through all social nets until she reaches rock bottom.

There is no change of direction in the downward spiraling tale of the continually humiliated Oharu, no matter how hard we wish for a bit of luck for the poor woman. She rarely gets any opportunity to take a decision that might influence her fate. Nevertheless, she ends up at the bottom of the ancient Japanese society with no hope of returning to any kind of standing. The brutality of the men in her life, including her father is maddening. The only glimpse of a cynical practicality is when all the outlawed women solidarise, sharing what little resources are available to them.

At one point, Oharu meets an older street musician who seems to have shared the fate of Oharu but has sunken even deeper. Although Oharu is polite to the poor lady you can still feel the importance of status to Oharu. Inside Oharu's character there seems to be a deadly combination of pride, traditional values and sheer desperation at work. It becomes clear that the woman has no chance of escaping her fate.

In what way Mizoguchi's film can be seen as a critique of modern vs. traditional Japanese values I can only guess. His view is very distant and documentary-like. I had the feeling that he carefully refrained from getting the viewer too much involved, or let him feel pity, with Oharu.

Mizoguchi's camera work is very fluid and the camera moves either in very long tracking shots or in slow pans. Although, on a second viewing I found that some of the camera moves can be surprisingly swift. Dialogue is rarely intercut with shot and counter-shot. Mostly, the characters change position towards the camera. A typical scene from the film would be the following.

The messenger of Edo arrives - the inhabitants of the house converse at the end of a hallway, preparing to receive the honoured guest.

CUT: An exhausted messenger is carried by the servants to the meeting room. The camera follows with a long sideway track. The messenger is set down comfortably and taken care of. All the characters face the camera.



The camera pans to the left, showing the arrival of the master of the house. He sits down with the back to the camera. He sends the servants away. The messenger explains his mission.



CUT: The messenger is in the center of the frame, as his host gets up and takes a new position. He sits in a right angle to the man. When the messenger gives a parchment scroll to the host, the camera pulls back slowly to frame the action on the floor. The frame is corrected when the host hangs up the picture on the back wall.


Then the camera moves back in again, while the two actors have their backs turned to the camera, ie taking the audience's position and marveling at the painting of the woman. The messenger explains the mission.


CUT: The camera starts with a close-up of the picture and pulls back, while the messenger explains the features of the perfect woman his master is looking for.

CUT: For the first time, the camera changes the direction and shows the two men upfront, as they stare at the picture. When they approach the wall, the camera swiftly moves around them and ends in the same position it started with.




 

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