A young woman becomes her married boss’ mistress to help her debt-ridden father in this ‘30s classic from Mizoguchi that would pave way thematically for his later films about ‘fallen women’.
Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
1936 | Japan | Drama | 71 mins | 1.33:1 | Japanese
Not rated (likely to be PG)
Cast: Isuzu Yamada, Seiichi Takegawa, Chiyoko Okura
Plot: Ayako becomes the mistress of her boss, Mr. Asai, so she can pay her father’s debt, and prevent him from going to prison for embezzlement.
Subject Matter: Moderate – Women in Society; Patriarchy
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Viewed: Criterion Eclipse DVD
Way before he belatedly came into international prominence in the ‘50s with such crowning achievements as The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954), Kenji Mizoguchi was already an incredibly prolific filmmaker since the silent era.
Osaka Elegy, made in the mid-‘30s, marked a fruitful period of transition into sound pictures and has since been regarded as an early classic of his that very much captured a theme that had permeated throughout his entire career—that of ‘fallen women’, who had been disgraced and shunned by family and society for varying reasons.
In Osaka Elegy, Isuzu Yamada (who was famously ‘Lady Macbeth’ in the 1957 Kurosawa movie, Throne of Blood) plays Ayako, a young woman who secretly becomes her married boss’ mistress in order to help her good-for-nothing father pay off his debts.
“You’re a woman… You’ve done shameful things.”
Little does she know that her action would lead to a series of mounting problems that result in personal and public shame. Yamada is splendid, capturing her character’s sense of vulnerability and the inner strength to fight for the right to her dignity as a woman.
Toxic patriarchy is made conspicuous by Mizoguchi in several scenes, be it in the office where Ayako works as a switchboard operator, or by the men in her family.
While the ‘elegy’ in this instance could directly refer to the depressing nature of Ayako’s fall from grace, perhaps it may be wiser to read the title literally—that it is a lament for a city that seems to offer nothing to women, but everything to men. While not a terrific work, the modest Osaka Elegy is still worth exploring from one of the titans of Japanese cinema.