I first watched Kenji Mizoguchi’s OSAKA ELEGY over twenty years ago, renting the VHS shortly after graduating high school. It left a big impression, and I intended on going back for subsequent viewings, but alas, until now, it was not to be. Life is funny like that. For me, a largest part of the benefit of collecting various art objects is simply having them close at hand, so that when inspiration strikes at 3:47 am on a Tuesday morning (I just gotta watch/hear/read that again…), it’s only a short trip to the shelves for near-immediate satisfaction. But one tough reality about collecting is how, unless the focus is severely restricted, it’s well nigh impossible to collect it all. And if you did somehow manage, where would it all go? Into a huge catalogued air-conditioned warehouse? The pipedream of collecting everything would require vast amounts of money and so much effort that it would likely mean having little or no time to actually enjoy the rewards of such a titanic endeavor. I mention all this since there were easily at least a dozen instances where I wished to see OSAKA ELEGY over the years and simply couldn’t. Those are what’re called the breaks. A fringe benefit of this denial of access is that the longer the senses go without absorbing an esteemed work of art, the more it can inch back toward that state of undiscovered bliss. A return engagement can therefore be like getting blown away by a film all over again. That’s just what happened with me and Mizoguchi’s 1936 masterpiece. OSAKA ELEGY is simply one of the most forward thinking films to come out of cinema’s classical period. I feel safe in making this claim in part due to my extensive reading of and trust in the expertise of other far more knowledgeable film writers. My biggest reason however derives from my own direct experience with the film; it is a work of sincere feminist (and therefore humanist) conviction, but it never sacrifices the necessary depth of characterization or the importance of a strongly built story in its desire to make a bold statement. To the contrary, Mizoguchi’s point is greatly enhanced by how well he develops his tale and the characters that inhabit it. Foremost is Ayako, brilliantly played by Isuzu Yamada; a young switchboard operator victimized by the conventions of Japanese society and treated harshly by the members of her family for falling outside the accepted norms of the time, she’s in no way a shallow angelic figure, instead possessing faults and weaknesses like any member of the human race.
And this is ultimately what makes her fate so emotionally resonant to this very day; Ayako registers as legitimately, recognizably human, like us, Mizoguchi understanding that the societal wrongs he was methodically railing against in no way required a one dimensional beacon of faultless virtue, a caricature not a character, to secure the sense of patriarchal violation. Ultimately, the film attains its lasting importance and status of mastery due to the basic humanity that is given to not only Ayako, but all of the figures in the story. Mizoguchi is often compared to Ozu, and for good reason, but watching EARLY SPRING and OSAKA ELEGY in such close proximity really amplifies a large difference, at least in relation to these two specific films. In SPRING, Ozu establishes a mature, calm acceptance. He’s not trying to change the world, he’s just hoping to widen and deepen our understanding of it. In contrast, ELEGY is an angry film, or even better, it is “post-angry”, being calmly, solidly resentful of injustice, a feeling that’s enhanced when light is shed upon Mizoguchi’s autobiography (investigate it at yr leisure). SPRING notably has no villains in its story, and for that matter neither does ELEGY. But the males in Mizoguchi’s film surely do serve as the agents of antagonism for Ayako, who by film’s end takes on the status of anti-heroine.
If Ozu presents a level playing field for humanity that might subtly favor the feminine, Mizoguchi is far more overt in his sympathies. And again, the males in ELEGY are provided with the same essential humanity (if not the depth of portraiture), so that specific actions register as something much different than the methodical tropes of fictional villainy. Specifically, after Ayako’s arrest and disgrace for soliciting, the decision of her father and brother to favor the norms of cultural tradition against the bond of family feels egregious, particularly in light of Ayako’s movements away from the norms of society owing directly to the weakness of the father (in short, gambling debts that lead him to getting caught with his hand in the till) and the needs of the brother (a college student short the tuition money necessary to finish his last semester). Briefly, she slips into a role of mistress/kept woman to her boss in order to settle these debts, and then serves in the same capacity to an associate of her boss until she abruptly attempts to end this liaison in hopes of marrying a young co-worker. When her spurned lover has her arrested, Ayako’s world crumbles. Ultimately her family’s shunning of Ayako shows them as trapped by the circumstances of Japanese culture, and it’s important to also note that the younger sister shares in the male figures’ maddening and distasteful opprobrium. They are all presented with a choice, an extremely difficult one, forced between either sharing her fate or casting her out in the attempt to save some semblance of face. When it becomes clear they have elected for the later, the pain of the situation is intensified by the ambiguity over the disintegration of this familial bond in a culture where adherence to an odious hierarchy and mode of behavior is basically everything.
Do they even love Ayako, now that she has disgraced herself and by extension them? Did they ever love her, or were the activities of family simply a delusional ritual that provided normalcy, safety and the illusion of support until the bounds of acceptable behavior were breached? I couldn’t help thinking of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s THE SCARLET LETTER when considering Ayako’s treatment, though obviously there are some big differences between the text and the film. Hawthorne was in part concerned with religion and how an adherence to a puritanical standard of conduct clashes with unavoidable human desires and the fallout from this friction. Mizoguchi is again plainly disgusted by the ingrained structural oppressiveness of gender inequality, and it’s telling how LETTER is carefully, wisely set at the very beginnings of the American republic while the film is defiantly placed in the present: OSAKA ELEGY’s credits open with a swell of jazz, aka classical filmic shorthand for modernity, but the possibility of contemporary progressiveness is quickly trampled. Mizoguchi presents modern surfaces and then inflicts them with a regressive emotional atmosphere, pulling the rug out from underneath the notion that the present day has the market cornered on enlightenment.
These tricky surfaces take on a variety of forms, from the structural landscape of urbanization to the bickering between a husband and wife, where it initially seems the woman holds the upper hand, only to see her later undercut as the disparity of freedom that’s ingrained in codified tradition is revealed. There is a significant difference in ELEGY between appearance and reality. Had the movie been a period piece, it likely would have inspired less controversy upon its release (it was called “decadent” by the Japanese authorities and apparently withdrawn from circulation, its era being global wartime after all). Distance often plays a role of comfort in works of art: it’s easy to point and wag the finger at the past, and ELEGY’s worth is greatly increased by how it denied the viewer this escape hatch at the time of its release. Additionally, simply knowing that Mizoguchi placed his story in the present greatly reduces the temptation for finger wagging when looking back at the film in the here-and-now.
If in SPRING Ozu looks upon all of his characters with affection, Mizoguchi reserves his love for Ayako. But again, she transcends her status as victim to prevail as thoroughly recognizable and resonant in the modern world, all while remaining truly representative of her era. This is what’s called timelessness, and it’s a quality that can never be a conscious endeavor on part of the filmmaker, since striving for it results in failure. On the subject of form, OSAKA ELEGY distinguishes itself with ease, even through the visible evidence of age and wear on the source print, which in fact we should thank our lucky stars exists at all given the disdain and indifference that greeted the film’s release. Mizoguchi favors long takes with deliberate cutting, though his visual style in this film, while by no means invisible, is very much in the classical tradition of not drawing undue attention away from the narrative. The viewer instead feels the artistry through subtle directorial touches. If the director’s images in this film are in obvious service of the story, lovers of mise-en-scène can rest easy that the quality of those images is of superior stuff (even if the film print isn’t; I’ll add that the darkness of the celluloid actually feels somewhat appropriate if not welcome); they infuse the tale with a slowly building power that startles at the film’s denouement.
And in contrast to Ozu’s reputation as a “slow” storyteller, Mizoguchi in ELEGY displays a rather crisp handling of the narrative. He surely allows scenes to breathe and gather power through well-ordered visual presentation, but the story does move at a pace that’s recognizable to anyone cognizant with the mainstream of classical cinema. But in the end the aspect of Mizoguchi’s masterwork that connects with me most strongly is his forward thinking clarity. The last scene of ELEGY, finds Ayako alone on a city bridge, guilty of soliciting, spurned by her family, her chance at a happy marriage with the man she loved gone forever. The initial mood is quietly troublesome, with the ambiguity over Ayako’s future mingling ominously with the certainty that there will be no happy ending. There is some sense of relief when it becomes clear that she is at the bridge for reflection upon her life instead of a cessation from its misfortunes, and after a brief bit of dialogue with a recurring character her defiant stride threatens to overtake the camera and then ends the film on a striking note, Ayako suddenly larger than life in a world huge and cruel.
A similarity to the conclusion of THE 400 BLOWS has been pointed out, but I don’t know if I would have made the comparison on my own. In Truffaut’s classic, the end seems to encompass so many different actions and emotions, wonder, fear and mystery among them. It does share with ELEGY a lead character that refuses to be tamed by authority and who has essentially lost the love/support of family because of this willful lack of conformity/acquiescence. But the freeze frame in BLOWS promotes feelings of lingering vagueness over Antoine Doinel’s future while the directness of Ayako’s powerful movement into the lens displays a steadying of emotions and an energizing of spirit that feels quite different. She is by no means a broken individual, and it seems very likely that she will continue to assert herself as a fly in the ointment of societal inequity for some time to come. Perhaps it’s my knowledge of subsequent human events that colors my impression of Ayako at the end of OSAKA ELEGY, but I like to think it’s the look in Isuzu Yamada’s eyes and the way that Mizoguchi films her in these last sublime frames: I don’t see uncertainty or regret; I see a burst of resolve. I also see so much of what I treasure about film; beauty, complexity, empathy, passion, and yes love. Mizoguchi wears his heart on his sleeve and for that I’ll be forever thankful.
Mizoguchi in Europe circa 1953