Directed by Kenji Mizoguch, Osaka Elegy (1936) opens with Mr. Asai, a middle-aged grouch, insulting his servants and wife. According to Asai-san, everyone in his house is stupid and incompetent. He and his wife argue and he threatens to get a mistress. The wife replies “go ahead.” There’s not even a spark of love or kindness in this man or his wife.
At work Mr. Asai is more temperate. He even smiles and laughs. Ayako, a young office girl, who answers the phones, catches his eye. Though she wears a kimono at work, while the men all wear Western suits (it’s always telling when a culture has women in traditional dress and men in the more modern) Ayoko embraces modern mores. She smokes, outside of work she wears the new styles.
Uninterested in middle-aged men, Ayoko has eyes for Susumu, a dashing young salary man, who likes her but isn’t ready to move beyond friendship. Ayako’s bigger problem is her father, who’s embezzled 300 yen from his company. They’re ready to set the police after him. Ayako has to deal with he father’s colleagues who come to the house to hound the family for money. Her cowardly father eavesdrops outside while they intimidate his daughters.
Ayako tries to get a loan from Susumu Nishimura. She’s run out of people to ask. In the end her only hope is an agreement with Mr. Asai, who’s pestered her with offers of money and apartments for some time. She winds up agreeing to Mr. Asai’s terms since Susumu hasn’t committed to her and can’t lend her the money.
She gives her father, who shows little appreciation or concern for Ayako, the money and disappears. She quits her job and goes off to her new gilded cage. Later she meets Susumu in a department store. He proposes and she thinks her life can change for the better. Yet more demands from her ungrateful family lead her away from the marriage she hoped for.
The Criterion Collection offers two insightful essays on Osaka Elegy. In one it points out that the director was haunted by his parents selling his sister into prostitution so they could pay for his education:
A detail of Kenji Mizoguchi’s life that is seldom left out of any biographical note is the fact that his older sister was sold into prostitution when he was a child. The practice was not uncommon among poverty-stricken Asian families, and while horrifying enough, the boy’s future was linked to her bondage. After the death of their parents she supported him, and her eventual marriage to a wealthy patron made his education possible. According to the tenets of Japan’s institutionalized sexism, the sacrifice of the less-valued girl child for the well-being of a son would have been taken for granted. But the themes and meaning of the director’s entire body of work attest that for him at least, it never was. Over his long career, through more than eighty films, Mizoguchi would constantly champion women wronged and discarded: Osaka Elegy, Sisters of the Gion, A Woman of Osaka, A Geisha, and Street of Shame. His portrayal, with merciless depth, of the workings of a society that nurtured male privilege and sanctioned second-class citizenship for women, suggests a sensibility on the cutting edge of giri.
I was struck by how Ayako’s desire for a progressive, modern life, was strangled. While she could smoke and work, neither of these actions kept her secure or gave her power. Also the movie, while not explicit, was open about sexuality and exploitation. It doesn’t dress up the sacrifice and cost Ayoko must pay. There’s a bold realism in the film that captivates.