Take a basic narrative formula‚ÄĒan opportunity for escape is snatched away at the last minute‚ÄĒand repeat for 136 minutes, and you‚Äôll have something close to a plot synopsis for The Life Of Oharu. Structured episodically, Kenji Mizoguchi‚Äôs masterful 1952 downer follows a samurai‚Äôs daughter‚ÄĒplayed by the great Kinuyo Tanaka‚ÄĒthrough a lifetime of humiliation; the movie‚Äôs pessimism is so thorough and nuanced that it registers not as an attitude, but as a complete worldview.

As in much of his later work, Mizoguchi adopts a perspective that is omniscient but never passive. Working in long, diagonal tracking shots that follow the movements of the characters without ever taking on their point of view, he creates a sense that the camera is an invisible observer. Close-ups are rare, yet every shot in The Life Of Oharu feels startlingly intimate, in part because Mizoguchi never gives the impression that the actors are performing for an audience; one thing that immediately sets his work apart from that of his contemporaries‚ÄĒand makes Oharu seem strikingly modern‚ÄĒis the sheer amount of time characters spend out of frame or with their backs to the camera. Viewers are left with the feeling that they are observing events instead of having something played for them.

This partly explains why Oharu‚ÄĒa ‚Äúmessage movie‚ÄĚ if there ever was one‚ÄĒnever feels even remotely didactic. Out of the four period masterpieces directed by Mizoguchi during the last decade of his life‚ÄĒthe others being Utamaro And His Five Women (1946), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho The Bailiff (1954)‚ÄĒOharu is¬†the most painfully personal. (Like the title character, Mizoguchi‚Äôs sister was effectively sold into prostitution by their father to cover debts.) Yet whatever anger Mizoguchi might have felt is sublimated into a detailed, unflinching style. He doesn‚Äôt point out the cruelty of the world, or that the repeatedly punished Tanaka‚Äôs only ‚Äúcrime‚ÄĚ is being powerless; instead, he creates a filmic universe where these themes are observable facts. Those searching for an explanation of what film-theory types mean by mise-en-sc√®ne need look no further.

The Life Of Oharu was part of the first wave of Japanese films to be widely shown in the West; it helped establish Japanese cinema‚Äôs international reputation and made Mizoguchi into something of a critics‚Äô darling abroad. Along with Mizoguchi‚Äôs subsequent films, it had a profound influence on the French New Wave‚ÄĒmost pronounced in the work of Jacques Rivette and in Jean-Luc Godard‚Äôs Vivre Sa Vie‚ÄĒand on other formally radical European filmmakers of the 1960s.


And yet The Life Of Oharu‚Äôs place in film history isn‚Äôt what makes it essential viewing. What makes the movie an enduring masterpiece‚ÄĒand makes Mizoguchi one of the 20th century‚Äôs major artists‚ÄĒis its ability to move, creating unforced sympathy for its title character. The Life Of Oharu avoids audience cues and emotional shortcuts. It‚Äôs a testament to cinema‚Äôs ability to not merely remind the viewer of emotions, but to serve as an honest-to-God emotional experience.

Also new this week:

Jim Muro‚Äôs gross-out video-store staple¬†Street Trash‚ÄĒabout a toxic liquor that turns winos into goopy mounds of brightly colored sludge‚ÄĒgets the Blu-ray treatment courtesy of Synapse Films. A readymade cult item if there ever was one, this 1987 horror comedy is distinguished by its flagrant tastelessness, general disregard for bodily integrity, and garish use of color. Speaking of the latter, Harmony Korine‚Äôs Day-Glo¬†Spring Breakers (Lionsgate) finds its way on to home video this week; depending on who‚Äôs watching, it‚Äôs either a brilliant deconstruction of materialism or just as repetitive and dull as Korine‚Äôs other features.


The late-period Hammer gothic flick Hands Of The Ripper‚ÄĒwhich pits Jack The Ripper against his archenemy, psychoanalysis‚ÄĒis Synapse‚Äôs other Blu-ray release this week. Cult Epics, in the meantime, is putting out Private (also known as Do It), a comparatively late (2003) work by softcore auteur Tinto Brass. The film consists of six vignettes, though since Brass is better known for his ability to frame and light a woman‚Äôs behind than for his storytelling, the lack of a narrative throughline shouldn‚Äôt matter too much to his core audience of strict formalists who like curvaceous Italian women.

Andrew Niccol‚Äôs Stephanie Meyer adaptation The Host (Universal) hits stores the same week as a new Blu-ray of his directing debut, Gattaca (Image); only history will be able to tell which is truly the better film. Dror Moreh‚Äôs documentary The Gatekeepers (Sony) is built around interviews with all of the living former heads of Israel‚Äôs secret service; regardless of Moreh‚Äôs presentation or interview techniques, his subjects‚Äô candor makes for fascinating viewing. From New Zealand comes Boy (Kino), an ‚Äô80s-set coming-of-age movie about a Maori kid who is obsessed with Michael Jackson. Tyler Perry‚Äôs Temptation (Lionsgate)‚ÄĒwhich bears the porny subtitle ‚ÄúConfessions Of A Marriage Counselor‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒwill make the perfect gift for people who like their moralizing served with a heaping dose of misogyny.

Colin Ferrell and Noomi Rapace star in Dead Man Down (Sony), the lackluster English-language debut of Niels Arden Oplev, director of the original film adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo; the film will lead people standing at Redbox kiosks across America to wonder whether they’ve seen this movie before. (They probably haven’t, but also sort of have). Speaking of movies with generic DVD covers and big name casts, Paul Weitz’s academic dramedy Admission (Universal) also drops this week.


Though Criterion already issued Stanley Donen’s perfectly entertaining Charade on Blu-ray in 2010, Universal is bringing out an inexpensive edition to celebrate the movie’s 50th anniversary. DIY types who don’t feel like buying some mass-produced corporate product will be happy to learn that, due to a legal loophole, Charade has been in the public domain for decades; anyone with a 35mm print and a 2K telecine is ready to make their own artisanal Charade Blu-rays, provided they overdub Henry Mancini’s score, which is covered by a different copyright.