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Osaka Elegy (1936) is one of two films that the Japanese filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi directed for the Daiichi Eiga studio in Kyoto. The other was Sisters of the Gion (1936), and both are considered among Mizoguchi's most accomplished films. Through the plight of Asako Murai, a young switchboard operator who is compelled to become a mistress to her boss in order to pay off her father's debts, Mizoguchi comments on the precarious status of women in society, a frequently recurring theme in his films. Osaka Elegy also offers a satiric view on what Mizoguchi viewed as the city of Osaka's materialistic culture.
At this point in his career, Mizoguchi had already directed dozens of films--his first feature was released in 1923--but most of them unfortunately do not survive. Even so, Osaka Elegy demonstrates the considerable skill he had acquired with long takes and staging in depth. Examples of these techniques include the lateral tracking shot that follows Asako and her boyfriend Nishimura when they walk through the department store, and the meticulously staged scenes when Asako's boss Asai propositions her and when Asako finally confesses to Nishimura.
As the film's title indicates, Osaka Elegy (1936) is as much about Osaka the place as it is about the character of Ayako Murai. (The title in Japanese, Naniwa Ereji, refers to Naniwa, an archaic name for the city.) Osaka was long one of the main merchant cities in Japan and remains an important business center. As the Mizoguchi scholar Donald Kirihara notes, by the 1930s the city had become a boom town thanks to trade with the West, but this "saddled Osaka with an image of modernization and Westernization undiluted by remnants of ancient traditions." Mizoguchi himself commented, "People from Osaka do not care what others think. They are too busy pursuing self-interest, too shameless to value self-restraint." In particular, Osaka Elegy was notable its use of Kansai regional dialect. Mizoguchi's scriptwriter Yoshikata Yoda later commented, "For the first time in Japanese cinema the Kansai accent, which up till then had only been used in comedy, became an authentic dramatic language." Kirihara further notes that the character of Ayako is an example of a moga, a modern and assertive young woman in Japan during the 1920s and 1930s, something equivalent to a flapper in the West, thus giving her character a distinct meaning for Japanese audiences of that period.
The lead actress Isuzu Yamada (1917-2012) was the daughter of a stage actor specializing in shinpa ("new school"), a genre of stage melodrama in Japan that often focused on the sufferings of female characters. Although it was influenced by romantic melodramas from the West, the shinpa stage tradition retained elements of kabuki theater, such as having male actors play women's roles. Considering that Mizoguchi himself began his career at the Nikkatsu Studio directing shinpa films, perhaps it is not surprising that he we would want to collaborate with her. Yamada's first film with Mizoguchi was The Mountain Pass of Love and Hate (1934), though that film no longer survives. By the time she made Osaka Elegy, she was just nineteen. Not only did Yamada became Mizoguchi's favorite actress during this time, but he fell in love with her as he did with several of this other lead actresses throughout his life.
Yamada writes about her experiences with Mizoguchi in her 1953 autobiography: "Mizoguchi-san was always very nice but when work started he became difficult. Physically too, the work was extremely strenuous. I am certain it was in the Downfall of Osen (1934) that for long hours I had my head stuck in a washing bowl half-alive and half-dead. But for Mizoguchi-san it was all quite normal. [...] In those days the critics labeled him a sadist. Certainly he was extremely ambitious about his work, and as an artist he had a passion for thoroughness. However, I was never afraid of that. I never uttered a complaint. While making a film the relationship between a director and an actor can be, on the surface at least, acrimonious. But it sparkles inside. Mizoguchi's technique is a typical example of this." She further recalled: "Near the end of this shoot I was supposed to enter the house and, seeing my brother and sister eating sukiyaki, say in a strong Osakan dialect, 'I'll have some sukiyaki too.' I changed the accent dozens of ways, and used every possible intonation, but Mizoguchi never seemed satisfied." In addition to Mizoguchi, Yamada worked with Akira Kurosawa, Mikioi Naruse, and Yasujiro Ozu. Her best known leading roles are those in Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion. In 2000 she received the Order of Culture from the Emperor of Japan.
The studio Daiichi Eiga (Number One Film) started in 1934 with financial support by Shochiku and was headed by Nagata Masakazu, who had come from Nikkatsu. Mizoguchi's scriptwriter Yoshikata Yoda recalls that this group of men at Nikkatsu frequently brawled with each other, even dumping men into the chemical bath for developing film. The studio ultimately made only a handful of films before closing down. Masakazu later worked with Mizoguchi again at Daiei, in the later years of Mizoguchi's career.
The Mizoguchi scholar Mark Le Fanu notes that at the time of the film's release, a number of critics complained that Osaka Elegy's ending was too abrupt. During a panel discussion, Kotaro Yamamoto commented, "The public is shocked to be so brutally expelled from these stories." Fuyuhiko Kitagawa further said, "Osaka Elegy ends with a scene in which people are simply walking out of the frame, and I think the public can't be satisfied with something so unusual!" Even Mizoguchi expressed doubts in this regard, although the lengthy close-up of Asako's (Isuzu Yamada's) face as she walks down the street at night seems instead perfectly economical and expressive today. Despite these minor reservations, Osaka Elegy earned third place on annual best-of-the-year list of the magazine Kinema Junpo; Sisters of the Gion placed first.
Producer: Masaichi Nagata
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Script: Yoshikata Yoda, based on the serialized novel Meiko by Saburo Okada
Director of Photography: Minoru Miki
Film Editor: Tatsuko Sakane
Music: Koichi Takagi
Cast: Isuzu Yamada (Ayako Murai); Seichi Takegawa (Junzo Murai); Chiyoko Okura (Sachiko Murai); Shinpachiro Asaka (Hiroshi Murai); Benkei Shiganoya (Sonosuke Asai); Yoko Umemura (Sumiko Asai); Eitaro Shindo (Yoshizo Fujino); Kensaku Hara (Nishimura); Kunio Tamura (Doctor Yoko); Takashi Shimura (Inspector).
by James Steffen
Kirihara, Donald. Patterns of Time: Mizoguchi and the 1930s. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.
Le Fanu, Mark. Mizoguchi and Japan. London: BFI Publishing, 2005.
McDonald, Keiko I. Mizoguchi. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.
Satō, Tadao. Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema. Translated by Brij Tankha and edited by Aruna Vasudev and Latika Padgaonkar. Oxford: Berg, 2008.