Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Kenji Mizoguchi | Naniwa erejii (Osaka Elegy)

by Douglas Messerli
Yoshikata Yoda (screenplay), Kenji Mizoguchi (director and writer) Naniwa erejii (Osaka Elegy) / 1936

A young telephone operator in the Asai Pharmaceutical Company, Ayako Murai (Isuzu Yamada) is in love with a fellow colleague, Nishimura (Kensaku Hara), a love which he returns with several excuses and lies. At nights Mr. Nisimura has been accompanying the company director’s wife, Sonosuke (Benkei Shiganoya), to the theater. Ayako notices him being paid for his services, but the young man denies everything, not recognizing his own behavior as a kind of prostitution. Unhappy at home, the company head, Sumiko (Yoko Umemura)—presented from the beginning of the film as a petulant, selfish, and abusive man—attempts to involve the young Ayako in an affair, which she rejects.

     When it becomes apparent that her father, who has embezzled 300 Yen from the company for which worked, will soon be imprisoned if we cannot come up with the money, Ayako attempts to borrow the money from Nisimura, but he refuses. Although Ayako is a spirited young woman, arguing against her father for his transgressions, she finally agrees to become Asai’s mistress so that she might raise the money to save her father. Leaving home, Ayako enters a new nightmare world that might be described as the inverse of Dorothy’s Oz (The Wizard of Oz was shot in the US three years later). The old Asai, setting her up in an apartment, forces her to redo her hair in the manner of married woman so that he might appear with her in public. And much of the day she is forced to sit alone awaiting the return of her unfeeling lover.

     When Asai’s wife encounters the two of them at a puppet play, he forces another of his employees to insist that it was him who is seeing Ayako, not Asai, deceiving the incensed wife. But soon after, she perceives the real truth when Asai’s doctor mistakenly shows up at their house to care for Asai, when, in fact, he has fallen ill in Ayako’s apartment. The affair ends, abruptly, disgracing Ayako. 

     Running into Nisimura in the street, the two come together again, he asking Ayako to marry him, but embarrassed by her situation, she rushes off. Later, however, she becomes determined to seek out Nisimura, accepting his offer and admitting her past. If his love is strong enough, she will marry him, freeing herself from her disagreeable life.

     Meanwhile, Ayako discovers from her sister that her college brother has run out of tuition, and she agrees to take up with another unpleasant businessman, Fujino (Eitarō Shindō) to secretly raise money for her brother’s education. She raises the money, and attempts to fool Fujino into giving extra money so that she can marry Nisimura. But when she walks out on him, Fujino calls the police, accusing her of soliciting from him. Ayako, meanwhile, attempts to explain her past to a horrified Nisimura, but is interrupted by the police who arrest her. At police headquarters Nisimura denies any involvement with Ayako, denying any desire to marry her, and the young girl is forced to admit to a crime she had committed only in search a way to further help her family and give herself a better life.

     Released by the police, she returns home, hoping for at least some appreciation for her acts, like Dorothy, speaking the cliché “There’s no place like home”; Mizoguchi’s irony in that statement almost breaks our hearts, as reality in Osaka is shown to be the reverse of Dorothy’s Kansas homestead. Over a family meal, of which she never offered a bite, Ayako is shunned by her brother, berated by her father, and even derided by her younger sister, cast out from her home.  

      The film’s last scene shows her walking along the side of the railroad tracks, pondering what might be the “disease of delinquency” for which her family and society have condemned her. Clearly, in answer to that, she must attempt a voyage into a strange new world once more. As in so many Mizoguchu works, women—particularly strong and nonsubservient women—are abused by Japanese society, ultimately having little choice but use their bodies in order to survive. The delinquency of which Ayako, in the end, is accused, is actually a product of the delinquency of nearly all the film’s male figures, who together scheme, lie, cheat, and abuse the young girls they encounter. And, accordingly, the independent women end up as mere figures of service as if they had never left home in the first place. The only successful woman in this world (head of the Woman’s Association) is the unloving and tart tongued Mrs. Asai, and it is she, as we observe in an early scene, who sleeps with a version of Dorothy’s beloved dog; without a scarecrow, woodsman, or lion to accompany her, Ayako is completely on her own, with only her own brain, heart, and courage to help her move forward.

Los Angeles, July 29, 2013


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