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  • Writer's pictureRobin Syversen


Updated: May 30

Mizoguchi’s First Critique of Japanese Gender Issues.

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

Cast: Isuzu Yamada, Eitarô Shindô, Benkei Shiganoya, Yôko Umemura, Kensaku Hara

Related Films: Sisters of the Gion, Tokyo Story, Yearning, The 47 Ronin

Studio: Daiichi

Year: 1936

Verdict: 4/6


Introducing Osaka Elegy

Osaka Elegy’s opening scenes channeled the 1930s Hollywood cinema atmosphere. For a moment, Mizoguchi led us to believe that Japanese Americanization was all glitz and glamor. As it turned out, it was a prelude to despair.

Osaka Elegy was the first baby step of a filmmaker who would become a master of Japanese cinema. Later in his career, Mizoguchi refined his critique of modern values. Osaka Elegy was not so subtle and suffered from overtly political undertones.

That said, Osaka Elegy was eventful and outspoken for its time. Most characters lacked redeeming qualities, which made them off-putting. At the same time, it was hard to look away from the arrogance that seemed to prevail in 1930s Japan.

Mizoguchi’s Voice of Reason

Mizoguchi’s disgust with Japanese patriarchy started with his father. At home, he witnessed domestic abuse from a young age. Before turning ten, he saw his sister sold into prostitution. Later, his sister supported him better than his parents ever did.

Mizoguchi’s mother passed away when he was seventeen, at which point his sister took him in and got him several jobs. These experiences in early life turned Mizoguchi into the Japanese film industry’s foremost advocate of women’s equality.

Osaka Elegy was a turning point for Mizoguchi. So far, his patriarchal critiques had made little headway and were often censored. So, he changed gear and went for the most realistic representation he could make of life in Osaka.

The Story in Osaka Elegy

Ayako was the oldest daughter of the Murai family. While her brother was off getting an education, she and her younger sister cared for their drunkard father. The three of them lived in a small apartment in Osaka (formerly known as Naniwa).

Ayako was a telephone operator in the Asai pharmaceutical company. She worked hard every day, either answering the phone or fighting off the advances of her colleagues and boss. (Fujino-san and Asai-san, respectively.)

One day her father was accused of embezzlement. To get him out of the jam, Ayako decided to become Asai-san’s mistress. Later, she also manipulated Fujino-san to give her 200 yen to pay for her brother’s tuition fees.

While dating these older patrons, Ayako also initiated a relationship with Nishimura-san, whom she hoped to marry. Asai-san and Fujino-san were just a means to an end. Nishimura was Ayako’s chance to get her life back on track.

From the get-go, most characters in Osaka Elegy come off as cynical and conniving.

Asai-san, for instance, orders all women around like a despot. He had long since turned his wife into a bitter harpy with little love left to give.

Fujino-san appeared little more than a misogynist womanizer, while Nishimura was a spineless cog in Japanese society. When he learned that Ayako had dated other men, he worried that their relationship would hurt his professional reputation.

At first, Ayako seemed the only one with a speck of moral fiber, but in the end, her choices also became questionable. The manipulations of her patron creeps were not so bad; they had it coming. Nishimura, however, deserved better.

The Implications of Ayako’s Actions

Ayako felt obligated to save her father and brother. So, she sacrificed her moral standards and did what she had to do. In return, she got nothing but grief. Fujino-san called the police on her, Nishimura rejected her, and her family shunned her.

Nishimura was a corporate tool, but Ayako desperately wanted to marry him. In a way, he was strong to reject her aggressive persuasions, even though he did so in the most cowardly way possible.

The question is if Ayako was conditioned by society or not. Perhaps stooping to the level of the men was the only way for her to get ahead. Still, it seemed pretty foolish not to realize the consequences of her actions.

If she knew how to work the system, she should also realize the implications. It was plausible, though, that Ayako might have been conditioned. Her deception certainly didn’t stop with miserable father figures and misogynist patriarchs.

Her behavior seemed ingrained when she tried to convince Nishimura. It was like second nature to her, like a natural talent hidden within. And when she got punished for her actions, she showed little remorse and turned her back on her old life.

Did Mizoguchi look beyond1930s Japanese society? Was Osaka Elegy a comment on the human condition? Or was it pointing the finger at a moral decay that had been brewing for centuries in Japan?

Osaka Elegy Analysis Part 1 | The Fathers of Japan

Osaka Elegy’s lack of human decency hardly seemed coincidental. It was tumultuous times. People struggled to get ahead, just like their Empire struggled to cope with Western modernity.

Sixty-eight years had passed since Japan welcomed Western industrialization. Many were still disgruntled and longed for a return to Japan’s old ways. The dissatisfaction grew so strong that it paved the way for national extremism and military expansion.

Japan’s military influence peaked in 1936. In Tokyo, nationalist army troops tried to overthrow the government. Overseas, they set out to colonize the larger East-Asia region. Greed begot greed, and cynicism spread like wildfire.

Age-old ideas of honor and loyalty fueled military prowess, and the heart of the empire was the emperor, the figurative father of Japan. Dying devotion to the emperor made the Japanese army a fearless and frightening foe.

The strong sense of loyalty also fueled the servitude within the Japanese patriarchy. The officers served the emperor. The soldiers served the officers. The people served the army, and it didn’t stop there.

Japanese society was built on devotion to father figures. Bosses ran offices and hovered over section managers who barked at the workers. Ayako was the image of change within this system. She was a modern girl, aka «moga».

Ayako tried to break free from the shackles of society, but still, she was trapped in a mire of age-old traditions. Male-dominated hierarchies had been the backbone of Japan for centuries, and at the bottom of the patriarchal food chain were the women.

Hostile Hierarchies | Osaka Elegy Analysis Part 2

Hierarchies were the center of attention in Osaka Elegy. It all began with two father figures. One was an upper-middle-class company owner. The other was a lower-middle-class family man. The former was respectable, the latter a laughingstock.

The respectable business owner basked at the top of the hierarchy while the family man drank his sorrows away. Ayako, on the other hand, didn’t conform to their value system. She embraced individuality and rejected her allotted place in society.

As such, Ayako opposed Japanese hierarchies left and right. She went against her father, took advantage of her boss, and manipulated Fujino-san and Nishimura. Oddly enough, she did all this because she felt obligated to help her father.

Ayako broke with Japanese traditions, but at the same time, she acted in accord with them. The contrasts in her behavior reflected the gaps in society. This was the curse of the moga; she had yet to fight solely for her own interests.

Instead of going her own way, Ayako stooped to the level of the father figures in Japan. She acted out of order, but at the same time, she took after the ingrates that treated her disrespectfully.

Ayako resorted to fraudulent manipulations and didn’t turn out much better than the men who made her life so miserable in the first place. She didn’t rise above the corruption but rather conformed to it.

«No matter how modern she was, Ayako was still a product of the world around her.»

– JCA –

Because of her actions, Ayako didn’t exactly turn out to be a likable protagonist. She rebelled against everyone, including her kin. She was cold-hearted, conniving, and turned out as much a villain as a hero in the end.

Ayako took one for the team and elbowed her way around the male-dominated society for her family’s sake. As such, she appeared more like a displaced cog than an improvement on the world around her.

Change takes time, of course. If anything, Ayako indicated that something was brewing in Japanese society, but ingrained values never change overnight. Japan, it appeared, still festered with corruption by the mid-1930s.

To what extent the value system got influenced by Western industrialism is hard to tell. Differential treatment of the hierarchical unfortunate appeared to have a strong foothold as Japan entered the pacific war.

Osaka Elegy seemed to point at a lingering cynicism in society that somehow was held at bay. In the 30s, though, decadence got unleashed when Japan got infected by the decline of Western civilization. Talk about your gasoline to the fire.

Mizoguchi’s Osaka Elegy vs. Ozu’s Tokyo Story

Osaka Elegy is noted as an early attempt at showing the real Japan. Mizoguchi paid much attention to detail to make the film as realistic as possible. By doing so, he emphasized the clash between western modernism and Japanese traditionalism.

Mizoguchi’s honest, albeit subjective, depiction of the moga might be the closest any filmmaker got at reflecting equality issues in mid-1930s Japan. His characters were so believable that Osaka Elegy got very real and pretty disheartening.

In a way, Osaka Elegy might have been too realistic. The characters were far from reserved. Everyone’s true colors were on display, and the famed Japanese restraint, aka tatemae, was nowhere in sight.

It was still fiction, of course, but to be blunt, Osaka Elegy was far more interesting than it was entertaining. Ozu displayed similar issues, but from the politically correct perspective.

In this sense, I’m inclined to agree with the argument that Ozu was the most Japanese director of all. Rarely did he stray from the male perspective of Japan, and his female characters tended to be molded on Japanese ideals rather than reality.

Mizoguchi held nothing back and displayed the decay he saw hidden around every corner. Ozu, on the other hand, stylized everything in line with the Japanese value system, including his female characters, like the iconic Noriko in Tokyo Story.

Osaka Elegy Review | The Line Between Good and Bad

Just like Mizoguchi’s filmmaking at the time, the characters and story in Osaka Elegy were rough. The opening scenes had a Hollywood flair, but it didn’t take long before Osaka Elegy turned into a dialogue-based, misanthropic melodrama.

After that, the storytelling got rather one-dimensional. Aside from Ayako’s arch, there were few signs of character development, and the narrative got monotonous. It underlined the reality of it all but undermined the entertainment value.

As for Ayako’s character arch, she got crude, manipulating, and somewhat hard to route for by the film's latter half. It took guts to stand up against the world as she did, but it wasn’t the wisest of moves in that day and age.

That said, Mizoguchi was already establishing his film style. The slow pace and meticulous camera movements were already in place. Especially the bunraku sequence (Japanese puppet theater) had a hint of his infamous style to come.

And even though the characters in Osaka Elegy had few redeeming qualities, the acting was pristine. Ayako, her family, colleagues, lovers, the doctor, and Nishimura were all wonderfully portrayed.

The police officers were perhaps a tad overacted, but it didn’t take away anything from the overall atmosphere of Osaka Elegy. Neither did the realistic settings, costumes, or interior design.

To be fair, Mizoguchi did an excellent job with the filmmaking. He succeeded in highlighting the unrelenting gloom of everyday life in 1930s Japan. As a result, his characters got miserable and unsympathetic.

Osaka Elegy was a formative film for Mizoguchi and a fairly strong one at that. It bore a promise of greatness to come, something he delivered only a few months later when releasing his first real masterpiece: Sisters of the Gion.

Final Verdict for Osaka Elegy

Osaka Elegy was Mizoguchi's first step away from mainstream filmmaking. It was a daring move since he opted for a more subjective approach. However, via self-exploration, Mizuguchi successfully unleashed his artistic talents.

Osaka Elegy was a far cry from the masterpieces Mizoguchi would make in the 50s, like Ugetsu (1953) or Sansho the Bailiff (1954). That said, it was an important film for his personal development and, therefore, a crucial part of Japanese film history.

Current filmmakers have all of Japanese film history to look back at when crafting their films, a privilege Mizoguchi never enjoyed. Instead, he took inspiration from life and shaped the history of Japanese film with his bare hands.

Osaka Elegy oozed moral decadence, but it was personal and honest. In hindsight, it was far from Mizoguchi’s best film. At the time, however, it was the highlight of his career and therefore became a central part of the formation of Japanese cinema.


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