Original release: May 28th, 1936
Running time: 90 minutes
Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Writer: Kenji Mizoguchi, Yoshikata Yoda
Cast: Isuzu Yamada, Benkei Shiganoya, Kensaku Hara, Yoko Umemura
When writing about Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sisters of the Gion, I came across Japanese film theorist Tadao Sato describing ‘feminisuto’, a special brand of Japanese feminism that he defined as the ‘worship of womanhood’.
I couldn’t, and still cannot, accept this state of mind as feminism as I understand the term. The idea that displaying female suffering on screen can “imbue admiration for a virtuous existence almost beyond our reach” is not something that I can recognise as feminism in any shape or form.
Worship – just like hatred – can only widen the gap between the two genders, whereas the aim of feminism is to eliminate the gap altogether. I don’t believe ‘male guilt’ can move this in the right direction, and as it seems to be the case in Mizoguchi’s film Osaka Elegy, ‘male guilt’ and worship are also often mere disguises for deep seated prejudice.
Osaka Elegy was made in 1936 – the same year as Sisters of the Gion. Due to the thematic similarities and Mizoguchi using much of the same cast in both films, they are generally considered companion pieces. While Sisters of the Gion – the latter of the two films – focuses on two female leads, Osaka Elegy has only one protagonist, played by actress Isuzu Yamada.
Just like in Sisters of the Gion, Yamada takes on the role of the “modern girl” otherwise known as “moga”; Japan’s equivalent of the American “flappers” of the 1920s. The modern girl is Ayaka, a telephone operator living a fairly normal life in Osaka in the 1930s.
In spite of my misgivings about Kenji Mizoguchi’s motivations behind these stories and characters, Osaka Elegy is a remarkable film that gives a great insight into the culture and social customs of pre-WW2 Japan.
I was astounded to watch the scene where Ayaka’s boss Mr. Asai (Benkei Shiganoya) tries to “seduce” her in his office. While he and his colleague refer to this behaviour as an attempt at seduction, looking back from the 21st century, it’s a clear case of sexual harassment at the workplace. It’s hard to believe that Ayaka feels she cannot walk away from this situation; it’s as if her feet were glued to the ground, a prisoner to the teachings of compulsory obedience.
While Ayaka’s resistance is initially successful and she plans a relationship with Nishimura (Kensaku Hara) – a devoted clerk working for the same company – there is great financial trouble looming over her family at home. Her father embezzled money from his employer and company officials are threatening legal action against him.
Ayaka eventually agrees to become Mr. Asai’s mistress in order to pay off her father’s debt. From then on, we witness Ayaka’s gradual descent into prostitution driven partly by shame, but mostly by the fact that everyone whom she should be able to rely on abandons her.
Much like Mizoguchi did in Sisters of the Gion, he orchestrates the downfall of a modern and independent minded young woman in Osaka Elegy. The character I found most intriguing and perhaps telling of where the auteur is coming from was Sumiko (Yoko Umemura), the wife of Ayaka’s boss. It is made clear that Mr. Asai wants Ayaka as his mistress because he is unhappy in his marriage. It’s his wife, Sumiko who is shown to be the beginning of Ayako’s tragedy and a villainous character throughout.
Sumiko is also an untraditional woman; she spends much of her time working as an officer for the Women’s Association. While Mr. Asai complains that she isn’t a “good wife”, Sumiko happily invites her husband’s discontent and gleefully expresses class prejudices towards him based on the fact that he comes from a poor background and married up into her family.
Sumiko’s character seems to be a blatant statement on Mizoguchi’s idea about feminism. She is constructed to represent feminism in Osaka Elegy by representing the Women’s Association – a group that fights prejudice against women while she is highly prejudiced herself. Stepping outside the traditional gender role, Sumiko is mean and easy to dislike; her prejudice is no less contemptible than any other kind.
Although there is nothing we can point to in Osaka Elegy and say the film is bending the truth in order to accommodate the filmmaker’s bias; it is always the auteur who chooses to assemble the truth in a particular way to represent reality. Of course, Osaka Elegy, as well as the character of Sumiko ‘could’ be true. There is nothing unrealistic about Sumiko being a feminist and a very mean and unpleasant person at the same time. Anyone can be a bad person regardless of gender or race, but Mizoguchi connecting prejudice with feminism feels like prejudice in itself.
Apart from Sumiko – whom I consider to be the most obvious evidence of the film maker’s anti-women bias, the film also gives a number of other clues of Mizoguchi’s negative attitude.
In a lengthy opening scene, Mr. Asai is getting ready to start his day with the help of several female servants. He treats them with much disrespect, constant criticism and repeated name calling to which the servants cannot respond with anything but agreement. Visually, the camera is content to linger on these situations longer than it is necessary to make a point; Osaka Elegy begins with a long opening of submissive women trying and failing to please one dominating man.
Both Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy left me with similar feelings – these films are considered companion pieces for a good reason. It’s almost as if Mizoguchi had split personalities; there is a great deal of understanding of female hardships at the time in both films, but the characters dealing with that are relentlessly punished no matter what.
The question we need to ask about these films and the director, which I feel I know the answer to, is this: Does Kenji Mizoguchi highlight the unfair treatment of women in Japanese society or merely shows it with content?
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.