Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Review – The Downfall of Osen

November 24, 2010

The Downfall of Osen – Japan, 1935

A power outage, a rainstorm, the sight of a Shinto shrine in the distance - some situations just naturally evoke reminiscences of troubled times. Think about it. When was the last time a character remembered something positive while standing in the rain? Sunny skies cause memories of romance to flood a person’s mind; storms, on the contrary, are more likely to make someone recall lost love, misery, or betrayal. Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1935 film The Downfall of Oden begins by focusing viewers’ attention of two characters, a well-dressed young man who we hear called professor and a beautiful woman sitting inside a waiting area where it’s warm and dry. Neither of them is aware of the other, and yet each of their gazes is fixed on the Kanda Shrine just off in the distance. They seem to both be thinking, “It was on a night such as this one…” The professor is spoken of in respectful terms; the woman, on the other hand, is mocked by a group of masked actors on their way either to or from a performance, spoken of as if she were not good enough to be accorded even the slightest bit of decency. And then the flashbacks begin. Some appear to be hers; others reflect events from the man’s life. Together, the memories of these two characters, Professor Sokichi Hata (Daijiro Natsukawa)and Miss Osen (Isuzu Yamada), unfold, giving viewers a complete picture of a relationship that started with a chance encounter at the very shrine that each of them is so fixated on in the opening scene. And it all did indeed begin on a night such as this one.

In the flashback that follows, we learn that the professor was once a poor, down-on-his-luck seventeen-year-old who yearned to get an education. When the dream seemed unachievable, he made his way to the shrine intending to end his suffering there. There, he happened to meet Miss Osen, who talks him out of his desperate act and into coming back with her. She means well, but from what we see, life is no easier for him with her than it was on the streets on Tokyo. And yet, his presence begins to affect her in a rather interesting way.

Those familiar with Mizoguchi’s earlier film The Water Magician will recognize certain elements of The Downfall of Osen, such as the protagonist who dreams of going to school, the woman who is transformed by him and ultimately becomes his benefactor, and the unscrupulous people surrounding the woman and thwarting her dreams. While it’s true that the two films follow similar paths, there are a few interesting differences between them. The most interesting one has to do with Sokichi’s quiet, passive nature. Unlike Western romantic heroes, Sokichi does nothing that seems outwardly brave or inspiring. When mistreated, he often cowers, just barely getting an arm up to protect his face. At another time, when a man named Matusuda (Genichi Fuji) decides to use Sokichi’s face to practice his shaving skills on, Sokichi puts up a bit of a struggle but never really begins to truly fight back in the way one would expect a “hero” to. And yet, he is an inspiration to Miss Osen simply because he perseveres. Miss Osen, far from being the conceited woman that Toki no Shiraito is in The Water Magician, is a decent woman trapped in an indecent world, a woman forced to work for a band of violent criminals under threat of death, repeatedly matched with good men as part of numerous cons and sold to brothels when they are low on cash. Sokichi makes her determined to change all of that.

On the one hand, The Downfall of Osen is about the con. The con is nothing like the one featured in The Sting. It merely involves convincing a well-known, yet slightly unconventional monk to allow an “art dealer” named Kumazawa to sell some of his monastery’s valuable statues. The plan then calls for Kumazawa and his goons to catch the monk in a compromising position with Miss Osen. The plan terrifies Osen, for as she explains it, if you cheat a monk, you will pay for it for seven generations. At the same time, the film is a story about love and dedication. While Osen and Sokichi do love each other, it’s unlikely they ever act on this. He’s shy and focused on his education, and she takes on the role of sister and mother to him. However, we sense that if Sokichi can just accomplish his goals, their time may finally come. There is another reason that Sokichi dedicates himself so strongly to his studies – he promised his grandmother that he would do so.

Mizoguchi’s film is a visual delight, from the opening scene’s collection of rain, eclectic characters, and the Kanda Shrine in the distance to the steam-filled streets and open-door stalls of Tokyo. This film is also well-paced and well-acted. Isuzu Yamada, perhaps better known for her role as Lady Asaji Washizu in Akira Kurosawa’s Thrown of Blood, is especially. According to IMDB, from 1930 to 1985, she made one hundred and fifteen films, and it’s easy to see why she was in such demand. The Downfall of Osen is a powerful film that I’m grateful for the opportunity to have seen. (on DVD in Regions 1 and 3)

3 and a half stars

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