January 21, 2016
Osaka Elegy – Japan, 1936
Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1936 film Osaka Elegy opens with a shot of flashing lights that reminded me of the way Las Vegas has been shown in countless movies. The scene is even accompanied by a jazzy score, and for a moment, I half expected to be swept into a story filled with exhilaration, gambling, and lighthearted fun. So it was a bit of a shock when daylight abruptly arrives and casts its gaze on a rather lifeless, minuscule pharmaceutical company. It’s a much less impressive sight, one with little in the way of romance or joy, and I was immediately overcome with an understanding of the somber reality about to unfold in front of me, that life can be disappointing and devoid of the thrills one hopes for.
Osaka Elegy occurs in a world rife with misery. In the film’s opening scene, we watch as Sonosuke Asai (Chiyako Okura), a pampered man who married into money, berates his servants and then engages in a brutal verbal tit-for-tat with his wife. She insults his manhood, and he criticizes her unwillingness to, as he puts it, “stay home like a wife should.” The verbal spat occurs in the presence of a doctor, and his expression makes it clear just how uneasy he is being there. This unhappy couple is contrasted a moment later with that of a young woman named Ayako Murai (Isuzu Yamada) and Nishimura (Kensaku Hara), the young man that she seems to have a crush on. Interestingly, in their first scene together, we see hints of not romance or flirtatious glances, but jealousy and suspicion.
It is here that the film changes focus, and it is quickly apparent that Ayako is the central figure in the film. We learn that Ayako’s father, Junzo (Seiichi Takekawa), has embezzled 300 yen from his employer, and, understandably, they want their money back. At the same time, Ayako receives an indecent proposal from her boss, who just happens to be Sonosuke. Under normal circumstances, her answer would be swift and firm, but under these conditions, she wavers. In a possible instance of foreshadowing, when we first see her, she is reading an article entitled “A Woman Corrupted by Greed.” It invites the question: Will this be her headline, or will what transpires show the fallacy of such sensational allegations?
One of the most interesting aspects of Osaka Elegy is Ayako’s complicated character. She is not naïve or unquestioningly decent, like the characters so often played by Setsuko Hara, and there is a pessimism to her, an acceptance of the unjustness of the world around her and her own vulnerability. At the same time, she seems to be able to adapt to even the worst of situations, morphing herself into what someone else wants and playing a role that likely disgusts her. Watching Yamada play this character is utterly fascinating, for she is able to change her facial expression on a dime. One moment, she’s looking at the man she adores with wide eyed hope and exhilaration; the next moment, we can see her sizing up the situation and calculating just what she has to do to get what she wants. It’s a truly fascinating performance, and it was never completely apparent to me which “Ayako” was the real one.
Osaka Elegy was written by Yoshikata Yoda based on an original story by Mizoguchi himself, and it is a credit to the two of them that Ayako always retains the audience’s sympathy. We are never allowed to forget that the worst of circumstances can sometimes justify decisions that would otherwise be looked on critically and likely disparaged. Ozu touched on this theme in his 1948 film A Hen in the Wind, yet did so in a more stereotypical way. Ozu’s fallen woman never comes across as manipulative or two-faced. The same cannot be said of Ayako, and it is astonishing that Mizoguchi was unafraid to depict this during the wave of nationalism that was sweeping Japan in 1930s. His is a land replete with broken relationships, privileged men who have no qualms about using their wealth in the pursuit of illicit interactions, and women well aware that the deck is stacked against them. It is a place where empathy is almost non-existent and where mistakes have the potential to haunt those that break established social norms in perpetuity. The film is moving, challenging, and utterly absorbing. (on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse: Series 13: Kenjo Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women)
*Osaka Elegy is in Japanese with English subtitles.