Out of more than 80 films spanning from the silent era to the mid-1950s, Life of Oharu from 1952 was the film of Mizoguchi Kenji's career - a project that he was so desperate to make that he abandoned the company, Shochiku, where he had worked for years and accepted an extremely small budget from Shintoho just so he could actually film the script he'd adapted with Yoda Yoshitaka from Ihara Saikaku's satirical novel from the 17th century. The final project is widely regarded as one of his best films - and paradoxically, one of his hardest to watch.

The film opens with a typical flourish by the director: a long tracking shot of almost supernatural fluidity. A woman walks away from the camera, which moves along behind her, and a bit to her left; it feels rather like the camera is trying to maneuver around her to get a good look at her face, but she keeps walking just a little bit too fast for us. Eventually, this woman meets a couple of other women, and they shout out her name. It turns out that this is Oharu (Tanaka Kinuyo, who would become Japan's first female director one year later), a good-natured fifty-year old prostitute. After joking around with her fellow working girls, she stops into a temple full of effigies, one of which she stares at until it resolves itself into a man's face. This is the trigger for her flashback to a time more than thirty years earlier, when she was a noblewoman, the daughter of a great samurai in Kyoto.

In her youth, Oharu was a lady-in-waiting at the imperial court, admired by many men but the object of one particular suitor's most urgent affections: Katsunosuke (an unregocnisable Mifune Toshirô), a courtier far below her station. Apparently, this one-sided courtship has been going on for some time at the beginning of the film, but when we are introduced to the situation, Oharu has just about been worn down by Katsunosuke's protestations of love, and it takes only one last poem - seemingly a torrid and explicit love poem - to send her to his arms at last. They become lovers for a brief time, but this kind of class intermingling is frowned upon at court, and when they are found out, Katsunosuke is condemned to death; his last words are a request that Oharu never marry for anything but true love. Meanwhile, the girl and her parents are exiled from Kyoto, ending up in a small village far from the city.

Thus begins Oharu's gentle but steady slide from the grandeur of the court to the wet street where we meet her three decades hence. Before she can reach that point, there are many trials to be faced: she is made the mistress to a lord, in the hopes of producing a male heir; once that is achieved she is forced out so that her infamy does not reflect ill on her child or his father. Her parents sell her to a high-class brothel, where she is groomed as a courtesan; but she angers the owner with her willful ways and is sent home. She meets a fan-maker and falls in love, fulfilling Katsunosuke's dying wish; but he is murdered by robbers on the road. And so on, and so forth - Oharu suffers constantly, but though her anger is palpable, she never speaks a word. Japanese society in the late 17th century would not permit a woman to speak her mind, and thus trapped in a male world, she proceeds inevitably to the final indignity of her life, where she is permitted to look for one instant on the face of her grown son, but is forbidden to say one word to him. After that, there is only the empty and impoverished life of a whore on the street. If Lars von Trier had been Japanese, he couldn't have made a more eloquent or more punishing study of the debasement of women in society than Mizoguchi.

Like his contemporary, Ozu Yasujro, Mizoguchi is associated with a very specific style, but while Ozu worked almost exlusively in generational stories about modern Japanese families, Mizoguchi permitted himself a bit more freedom in his choice of subjects. One theme keeps cropping up in his films, however: he is universally seen as one of the great directors of women in the history of the cinema. Certainly, Life of Oharu - its title more literally translates as Life of a Woman - is one of the greatest stories every filmed of a woman's role in a society that views the feminine as worthless and contemptible. And in the figure of Tanaka Kinuyo, Mizoguchi directed one of the finest performances ever given by a screen actress. Oharu's suffering is easy to dismiss as arbitrary, and perhaps it is; the modern viewer wants to demand an explanation why she accepts her fate so passively. There is no other explanation than "that was the way of feudal Japan" (and likely post-war Japan as well - Mizoguchi's film has the unmistakable flavor of an indictment of the filmmaker's own society, and it's probably not that controversial to suggest that women haven't been treated as equals in Japan for most of the last 60 years), but Tanaka's performance puts the lie to the idea that Oharu is a suffering female on the von Trier model. She accepts her life because she must, but there is never a moment where we believe that she isn't frustrated to the core of her being with the world, and it is clear that she would lash out screaming in anger if such an action wouldn't cost her and her family their lives.

Mizoguchi's customary style is a combination of long takes and marathon tracking shots that are invariably compared to the scroll paintings of traditional Japanese art. Typically, this leaves the feeling that his films are a series of tableaux in three dimensions. In the previous Mizoguchi films I have seen, the characters are compositional elements as much as anything (and I think that with almost 4% of his canon under my belt, I'm nothing if not a Mizoguchi expert), but this is not the case in Life of Oharu. Oharu herself often seems to fight against being in the frame: we see this in the opening shot, where she resists the camera's efforts to get around her. Later on, there is a beautiful series of "geometric" shots - images showing the inside of the lord's house where Oharu has just been judge a liability, each shot full of straight lines and individuals standing in very compositionally pleasing ways. This is an intriguing sequence for Mizoguchi: there are several short takes with static camera positions. The series of shots strongly reiterates the formal rigidity of Japanese courtly life. Eventually, the film cuts to Oharu, having just learned that she will never see her baby again, and she crumples to the ground, her long white cloak creasing around her. She is a stark contrast to the well-ordered lines around her, and the intent is obvious: this is not a world where Oharu fits. That is plainly the world's fault, and not hers.

Throughout the film, we are constantly invited to sympathise with the protagonist, with the camera always adopting a sympathetic point of view to her position, and frequently rising or falling to keep up with her position. This gives us a strong sense of identification with Oharu that makes her free-fall much more horrible to consider, and it makes the film undeniably painful. But it is a pain that could only come from something beautiful and wonderful, and though the film is wrenching like few others, this is only because it is also a masterpiece.