Life of an Amorous Woman

Saikaku Ichidai Onna, a film released in 1952 based on Saikaku Ihara's 1686 novel Koshoku Ichidai Onna (Life of an Amorous Woman), shares many similarities with its predecessor, but there are also many differences between the two works. These can largely be explained by their cultural context.

Before dealing with the movie and attempting to make these comparisons, it is first necessary to understand Saikaku Ihara and his original work. Ihara lived during the Edo period of Japanese history, and his life covered the Western years of 1642 to 1693. During this time the Tokugawa government had centralized power, and used many methods to keep that power. In order to weaken potential rivals, the government required local administrators to make periodic trips to the capital, Edo, and visit the shogun's court. This not only kept the daimyo (local lords or administrators) busy, but also caused them to expend much of their resources on travel, retainers, and living accommodations in Edo. While in the capital they had nothing but free time, and for this reason the government sanctioned the first yuri, or "towns of pleasure." Edo's yuri, called Yoshiwara, was founded in 1617 and was able to accommodate the needs of many men. By Saikaku's time it had flourished:

"The Yoshiwara. . . consisted of about 150 houses and contained some 3,000 courtesans, together with a large population of attendants, dancing girls, musicians, panders, jesters, and special tradesmen."(1)
These quarters, as with other aspects of Japanese aristocratic culture, had their own etiquette and their own rituals. The women were often very beautiful, and were dressed wonderfully, had artistic skill, and possessed great cultural refinement. Knowing this, then, one must wonder how such a large group of women could be needed to handle the visiting daimyo. The fact is that there were more than just these patrons frequenting the yuri.

Although the Tokugawa government did as much as it could to maintain the status quo, Japan was a changing nation in the 1600s. In Fact, it can be said that their attempts to maintain the current system had only helped Japan in moving to a new one. Japan had been an agricultural, rice-based economy since ancient times. However, with the daimyo spreading large amounts of wealth, and over a million people in the city of Edo alone, this medium of exchange was insufficient. At the beginning of the Tokugawa reign, in 1601, coinage was implemented. At first only gold and silver were used, but later copper was added and became the most common coin. It is understandable that with people travelling to Edo, most money would find its way there. Other large population and monetary areas were Kyoto with the emperor's palace, and Osaka with its trading center. As money flowed around, it seems rather obvious to the modern person that merchants would be gaining the most from it. Though perhaps more mythical than real today, Japan has always had a social hierarchical structure. During the Edo period the theoretical structure for social classes held samurai on the top, then farmers, merchants, and finally townspeople (or chonin) at the bottom.With merchants gaining wealth and farmers relying on the fluctuating value of their rice and other crops, great strain was placed on this system. Although merchants gained in physical wealth to rival the aristocracy, they were still perceived as being at the bottom of the heap. Although they had lots of money, they had no power to use it with. That is, they were not allowed to wear lavish clothing, extravagent households, or display any of the signs of being from high social standing. One of the ways that merchants could spend their money was on visits to the pleasure quarters. Although founded for the aristocracy and upper class citizens, the yuri would come to be associated more with merchants as their clientele.

Saikaku Ihara was presumably born into the chonin, enjoying luxury without showing hs luxury to others. He began writing in 1646, at the age of 14. He spent the first 26 years of his writing career composing haikai, a form of poetry which would later lead to haiku. He was first published in 1673 in a colleciton of poetry from the Danrin School of poets, to which he belonged. Although he was somewhat skilled sylistically as a poet, what he became most famous for was his ability to compose poetry quickly. He started a genre called yakazu, where a poet would attempt to create as much poetry as possible in 24 hours. He set the record in 1684, which no one ever tried to contest, at more than 23,000 verses. He released his first prose work in 1682, Koshoku Ichidai Otoko (Life of an Amorous Man). Ihara, in this novel, took what was before an illegitimate genre and transformed it into a literary field. Kanazoshi (kana booklets) had been in production for quite some time in the yuri, and included:,

"topographies, stores, anecdotes about popular actors, critiques of the leading courtesans, frivolous romances, practical books of advice or instruction, guides to letter-writing, collections of traditional stories about different localities, picaresque tales and books written in an epistolary form."(2)
These were written for the merchant class, who made up the vast majority of visitors to the yuri.

Ihara, in his first novel, drew heavily from the kanazoshi as influence, but his novel showed a marked difference. Rather than as a simple guide book or book to entertain, his book had more didactic qualities. Because of this, and perhaps because of his popularity for 24-hour poetry composition, his novel appears to have been very successful. This novel came to be known as the start of a new type of literature, the ukiyo-zoshi, and Ihara himself would write many more in this genre. His novels during this period of his life are called the koshoku novels. Koshoku is an amgibuous term for love, but explained this way in a description of Koshoku Ichidai Onna:

"Here koshoku signifies pure eroticism and sensuality, utterly devoid of the romantic and sentimental aspects of love that inspired the earlier heroines. "(3)
"Earlier Heroines" here refers to women in his previous works, such as Koshoku Gonin Onna (Five Women Who Loved Love). Koshoku Ichidai Onna was perhaps the greatest of these koshoku novels. It approached the life of a courtesan realistically, showing not only how glamorous it could be, but also how pitiful. He shows some sympathy for the main character, but it is still obvious that her own almost nymphomaniac passion is the cause of her ruin. When in her old age she goes to the mountains and becomes a religious recluse, her enlightenment is more likely reached due to her courtesan life having nothing left to offer her than because she made a conscious decision to leave the 'floating world' (ukiyo).

The movie Saikaku Ichidai Onna (Life of Oharu in its English release), and the novel Koshoku Ichidai Onna can be seen to hold both differences and similarities in plot and theme. The most obvious is revealed in the English title, but present in Japanese as well: The movie's character is given a name, and the book's is left nameless, almost as if to make her anonymous, or an amalgamation of all courtesans. Although both are told as flashbacks in a frame, the frames differ. In the book the woman is a recluse in the mountains, and some young men come to her and ask her to teach them about sex, causing her to remember her life. In the movie, Oharu is an old, unsuccessful courtesan who one night wanders into a temple. Seeing the many statues of buddhas there, she sees one that reminds her of her first love; this experience causes her to remember the events which led her to the present moment. A similar scene occurs in the book. As stated, she becomes a recluse in the mountains, but not until after she has an "enlightening" experience. She has grown old and is now an unpopular courtesan. One night she imagines she sees a parade of small people walking down the road. On closer inspection she realized that they are all ghosts of children; children which she had aborted, almost a hundred in number. Later, she wanders into a temple, she sees 500 statues of buddhas, and in each of their faces she sees someone she had 'loved', causing her to think back on the 10,000 men she has slept with, and realizes the error of her ways.

Perhaps one way in which the two works vary is the movement of the plot. The book has an almost linear decline in the status of the woman, from court lady down to destitute wanderer. In the movie her status is more volatile. Although she does start out as a court lady and end up, it seems, as a wandering homeless woman, she goes up an down many times, in fact becoming a court lady immediately before the movie's end. In the book she is given one opportunity after another, each of less status than the previous, but she ruins each by losing control of her passion. In the movie, her opportunities seem almost haphazard, going form court lady, dancer, consort, cortesan, servant, successful wife, nun, woman of a criminal, beggar, old courtesan, mother of a powerful lord, to enlightenment.

There were a number of episodes from the book which were left out of the movie. These stories invariably portray the woman as a passionate creature. In one, she sells herself out to a Buddhist monk for three years. He keeps her hidden in a cellar of of his room, and she becomes dissatisfied with her life. Finally she fakes a pregnancy so that he will let her leave. In another story, she is a courtesan and one of her customers says that he will only have her until he is 99 years old. She is amused by this, that he thinks he will live that long, and so she proceeds to make love with him constantly and in such a vigorous manner that he dies in a year. In yet another story she is hired into a house as a maid, and is not allowed to entertain men. However, she must put up night after night with the man and woman from the house being noisy in bed. Finally she decides to make the man hers, and has sex with him. She has a curse put on his wife, so that the couple might get divorced, but the curse backfires and the protaganist goes mad for a time.

Obviously, there are differences not only in the works but in the times in which they were created. The Edo period was a time when, in the words of Sir George Sansom,, "prudery had not been discovered."(4) Visiting the yuri wsa not a socially unacceptable activity, and sexuality was not looked down on in the way it is now. As Ivan Morris states,

"[The novels'] purpose was to describe the various effects of love on human beings; and since Saikaku lived in a nonpuritanical age when love was rarely divorced from its physical manifestations, it is not surprising that his works should often have a highly sexual content."(5)
The purpose of the novels, such as Life of an Amorous Woman, was to show what love can do to a person. Love, as with the Japanese term 'koshoku', has many different meanings, one of which is the way Saikaku used it, 'lust'. However, if we interpret the theme in this way, Mizoguchi Kenji, the director of Saikaku Ichidai Onna, did not necessarily perform such a shocking swing in it after all. By the late 1800s Japan was doing its best to modernize and catch up with the Western world. One cultural aspect which was focused on for change in order to be acceptable to the West was the the view of sexuality, resulting in very strict pornography laws. By the time Mizoguchi was making movies, a wholly different view of lust was present than in Ihara's day. So his depiction of what love can do to a person would differ as well. Oharu falls in love with a man whose status is much lower than hers, and she is banished in court for her affair with him. He tells her never to marry anyone whom she doesn't love, and she has relationsips with a few men, all of whom she cares for. Finally she finds a good husband, but he is killed soon after her wedding. In the end, just as she seems to have found success from the son she had as consort with a powerful lord, she falls again, because she had never loved the man.

The movie Saikaku Ichidai Onna and the novel it was was based on, Koshoku Ichidai Onna, both share much in common yet also have many differences. These differences are caused by their creators attempting to relate the same story and themes in different time periods, and adapting to their cultural situation.



Morris, Ivan, trans. The Life of an Amorous Woman and other Writings, Japan: Unesco Press, 1963.

Sansom, G. B. Japan, A Short Cultural History. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1952.

1. Morris, Ivan. 1963. p. 9.
2. Morris, Ivan. 1963. p. 13.
3. Morris, Ivan. 1963. p. 25.
4. Sansom, George. 1952. p. xx.
5. Morris, Ivan. 1963. p. xx.

Internet Movie Database: Life of Oharu


Written by Robert Ketcherside, 1994