A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, March 17, 2017

Osaka Elegy (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936)

It's easy to imagine Kenji Mizoguchi's Osaka Elegy remade into a 1930s "women's picture" starring Bette Davis, except that nothing made in Hollywood under the infantilizing Production Code would have had the depth and insight into the real problems of women that Mizoguchi's film does. Mizoguchi's direction frames the story elegantly: He begins with a shot of the neon-lighted city, backed by the pop standard "Stairway to the Stars" on the soundtrack, as day gradually breaks and the glamour of the neon fades into the drab reality of the daytime city. We go to the home of Sumiko Asai (Yoko Umemura), the head of a large pharmaceuticals company, where he berates the maids for small infractions and quarrels with his shrewish wife. The opening sets a tone of disillusionment that pervades the entire film, which becomes a sharp commentary on both traditional and contemporary sexual roles. The film's protagonist is Ayako (Isuzu Yamada), switchboard operator at Asai Pharmaceuticals, whom Asai wants to become his mistress. Ayako is reluctant -- she has a boyfriend, Nishimura (Kensaku Hara), another employee at the company -- but her feckless father (Shinpachiro Asaka) has been skimming from the till at work and has lost the money in the stock market. So she quits her job, lets Asai set her up in a fancy modern apartment, and sends her father the money he needs. After Asai's wife uncovers the arrangement, a friend of Asai's, Fujino (Eitaro Shindo), tries to move in on Ayako. But Ayako reconnects with Nishimura, who proposes to her. Uncertain how he will respond to the truth about her life -- she has told him she works in a beauty parlor -- she postpones her answer. Then she learns from her younger sister that their brother is being forced to drop out of the university because her father can't pay the tuition. She gets the money by pretending to yield to Fujino's advances, but runs to Nishimura and agrees to marry him, while also confessing her liaison with Asai. As Nishimura is pondering this information, a furious Fujino arrives and after being turned away, calls the police, charging her with theft. Nishimura cravenly tells the police that he was innocently dragged into the affair by Ayako, but because it's her first offense she is released into her father's custody. Her family, whose money problems she has dutifully solved, shuns her and her brother calls her a "delinquent." Ayako walks out into the night and we follow her to a bridge, where she looks down into the trash-filled waters. But as we wonder if she is going to commit suicide, the family doctor, who has been present at several of the crisis points in her story, happens to meet her on the bridge. She asks him if there is a cure for delinquency, and when he says no, she accepts the judgment and, holding her head high, walks away toward the camera. Yamada's terrific performance was one of several she gave for Mizoguchi, establishing her as a specialist in strong female roles -- she is perhaps best-known by Western audiences as the Lady Macbeth equivalent in Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (1957).