(a.k.a. Naniwa erejii)
(Japan, Kenji Mizoguchi)
Mizoguchi’s strong empathy for women continues in this beautiful movie about the double standards women faced in 1930s Japan – a country perilously teetering between tradition and modernity. We see pieces of traditional life being shed away in favor of modernity, but changes in women’s positions are not keeping up with these unnerving changes. Mizoguchi uses the tragic tale of Ayako Murai (Isuzu Yamada), telephone operator for a pharmaceutical company whose commitment to her family leads to her downfall, to argue for greater flexibility for women in Japanese society.
Ayako’s family depends on her without realizing or acknowledging her worth. Her father has been thrown out of work after his company discovered he had embezzled a large sum of money. Ayako now struggles to pay back the money to keep their father, who spends more time drinking than trying to find a job, out of jail. Ayako’s younger daughter attends school and their older brother is away at college. At various times Ayako sacrifices her reputation and life to save each of her family members. Early in the picture she succumbs to the advances of her boss and becomes his mistress, accepting his money to pay her father’s debts.
Most of her family doesn’t understand what she has done for them (especially her brother who avoids expulsion from school with her anonymous money), so as stories about her being kept by an older man or being arrested for blackmail trickle back to them, they are deeply ashamed and shun her. There is a poignant scene near the end of the picture when Ayako tries to reconcile with her family but they can’t see past her transgressions, ignoring or failing to understand why she did what she did and how their lives are now better because of her.
Mizoguchi, in his quiet and compelling way, lashes out at his nation’s continued hypocrisy over changing values in just about every area of society except those that involve women. Osaka Elegy is a beautiful, heartbreaking film where we understand why Ayako does what she does, but we can’t understand why her family refuses to let her back in. It is this absurdity that Mizoguchi wanted us to ponder as we walk away from the theater. That Mizoguchi chose to characterize the story as an elegy suggests it never mattered what Ayako did; by stepping out of her traditionally assigned role, even to help her family, she was doomed to tragedy.