Osaka Elegy (浪華悲歌, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936)

osaka elegy posterKenji Mizoguchi felt he was hitting his artistic stride with Osaka Elegy (浪華悲歌, Naniwa Elegy). Released in 1936 amid the tide of rising militarism, Mizoguchi’s tale of sacrifice and betrayal is strikingly modern in its depiction of female agency and the impossibility of escape from the confines of familial power and social oppression. Sexual harassment was not so much a problem as an accepted part of life in 1936, but as always it’s never the men who suffer. In depicting life as he saw it, Mizoguchi’s vision is bleak, leaving his forward striding heroine adrift in a changing, volatile world.

Beginning not with the protagonist, Mizoguchi first introduces the quasi-antagonist, lecherous boss Asai (Benkai Shiganoya), who feels trapped in an unhappy marriage to a bossy, shrewish woman. For Asai, the head of a family pharmaceuticals firm, work is an escape from family life and the same is also true for telephone switchboard operator Ayako (Isuzu Yamada) who lives with her feckless father whose gambling problem has left them all with serious debts. Asai, encouraged by Fujino (Eitaro Shindo), a colleague well known to be a womaniser, has developed a crush on the meek and innocent Ayako and continues to harass her at work, invading her personal space and pleading with her to have dinner with him. She declines and leaves distressed but when her father is discovered to have embezzled a large sum of money from his company which they will let go if he pays it back, Ayako is faced with a terrible dilemma.

In essence, Osaka Elegy is a hahamono which shifts focus to the self-sacrificing daughter of motherless family rather than a betrayed mother who gives all for her children and receives little in return. Ayako flits between resentment of her useless father’s poor parenting which has left her the sole figure of responsibility for a younger sister and older brother who already seem to hate her even before her present predicament. Yet however much she loathes her father for his weaknesses, she still feels a responsibility to help him and to avoid the social stigma should he fail to repay the money he stole and is arrested. Once she makes the difficult decision to become Asai’s mistress, her fate is sealed. She loses her future, her right to be happy, and the possibility of marriage to her equally meek boyfriend Nishimura (Kensaku Hara).

Being Asai’s mistress is perhaps not as bad as it sounds. Ayako is at least provided for – Asai pays her father’s debt and sets her up in an apartment they can use to conduct their affair but her status will always be uncertain. Asai’s wife (Yoko Umemura), ironically enough, is fond of Nishimura who may be something of a gigolo but their situation is unlikely to entail further consequences for either of them. In her relationship with Asai, Ayako begins meekly, playing the part-time wife which is exactly the figure Asai desires – someone to lovingly help with his coat and throw a scarf around his neck. When the affair is discovered by Mrs. Asai, Ayako’s character undergoes a shift. No longer meek and passive, she declares she will not see Asai again. Her physical presence and manner of speaking reverts to the repressed resentment previously seen only when dealing with her father.

If the failed affair allows a certain steel to rise within her, her neat kimono swapped for the latest flapper fashions, Ayako remains ill equipped to operate within the world she has just entered. About to renounce her “delinquent” life, Ayako fixes her hopes on reuniting with Nishimura and the normal, peaceful marriage to a kind and honest man that should have been hers if it were not for her father’s lack of care. Just when it looks as if she may triumph, a second familial crisis sends her right back into the world she was trying to escape but Ayako overplays her hand and suffers gravely for it.

Having sacrificed so much for her family, Ayako is rejected once again. Her feckless father and cruel siblings do not want to be associated with her “immoral” lifestyle which has made her a media sensation and continues to cause them embarrassment. She has lost everything – career, love, family, reputation and all possibility for a successful future. Yet rather than ending on the figure of a broken, desolate woman, Mizoguchi allows his heroine her pride. Ayako, far from collapsing, straightens her hat and walks towards the camera, facing an uncertain fate with resolute determination, defiantly walking away from the patriarchal forces which have done nothing other than conspired to ruin her.

Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season. Screening again on 21st October, 17.10.

Also available on blu-ray as part of Artificial Eye’s Mizoguchi box set.

Opening scene (English subtitles)

Kochiyama Soshun (河内山宗俊, Sadao Yamanaka, 1936)

kochiyama soshunThe second of the only three extant films directed by Sadao Yamanaka in his intense yet brief career, Kochiyama Soshun (河内山宗俊, oddly retitled “Preist of Darkness” in its English language release) is not as obviously comic or as desperately bleak as the other two but falls somewhere in between with its meandering tale of a stolen (ceremonial) knife which precedes to carve a deep wound into the lives of everyone connected with it. Once again taking place within the realm of the jidaigeki, Kochiyama Soshun focuses more tightly on the lives of the dispossessed, downtrodden, and criminal who invoke their own downfall by attempting to repurpose and misuse the samurai’s symbol of his power, only to find it hollow and void of protection.

The primary players are the virtuous and innocent Onami (Setsuko Hara) who runs a small sweet sake stall and her errant young brother, Hiro, who spends all of his time in a local drinking establishment run by the wife of the titular Kochiyama Soshun. Despite his priestly get up, Kochiyama is a conman, swinder, gambler and petty gangster but for some reason he takes a liking to Hiro not knowing that he’s Onami’s brother because he’s been using the fake name of “Nao” to prevent his sister tracking him down and bringing him home again. There’s a bigger criminal outfit in town run by a guy named Morita but mostly everyone knows Kaneko who comes and collects his protection money. Kaneko also has something of a crush on Onami and generally lets her off the payments.

Everything starts to go very wrong when Hiro pinches the dagger of a careless samurai. It turns out that the sword and dagger set were a gift from his lord who received them from the shogun so this loss is particularly embarrassing and if he were asked to produce the dagger but couldn’t, he’d be duty bound to commit harakiri. Hiro gets himself into even more trouble when he spots a childhood friend working in the red light district and tries to run off with her. If things weren’t difficult enough, Onami is now firmly pulled into his web of trouble as Morita’s gang want the compensation money for the loss of their girl, a sum so vast there is no way Onami could ever be able to repay it leaving her with only one, unthinkable, option.

Everything here is pretence – the “priest” who cheats and gambles, the young man who uses a fake name, the samurai with no real power, and the dagger itself with its uncertain authenticity. Onami is the only true and honest thing in the entire film, unsullied by the meanness of the world which surrounds her, yet even she finds herself sucked in by the reckless actions of her brother. She too becomes a commodity to be bought, traded, and sold, placed as a bargaining chip between the competing forces of Kochiyama and Kaneko. Kaneko, though he works for the “bad guys” is not a bad man (more mirroring) and has a noble heart unwilling to carry out the service of his master when it conflicts with his own desire for justice.

Onami’s essential goodness has infected both of them as they now see that they have lived morally disappointing lives but have also been given a chance for a final bid at redemption, albeit in the service of an idiotic, self centred teenager whose selfish and reckless actions have destabilised the lives of everyone around him. The film ends on a note of uncertainty as one character is permitted to escape with the means to save another in hand, paid for by the sacrifice of others, but whether they will be in time or opt to selfishly run away is very much open for debate.

In a more serious mood here, Yamanaka is less playful than in the more obviously comic Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot but nevertheless continues to push his art to the visible limit. Like Tange Sazen, Kochiyama Soshun is an ensemble led film but its plotting is far more intricate and involved. It’s possible that the film is incomplete, but events often seem hard to follow and we only learn of one extremely important incident during a throwaway conversation between two characters who clearly don’t know its import. Even so it’s no great hardship to piece things together as we go, and Yamanaka makes sure to draw his characters well enough that it doesn’t really matter. Even if the weaker of Yamanaka’s surviving films, Kochiyama Soshun is another characteristically innovative piece filled with wry humour but a fair degree of warmth too.

Unsubtitled clip:

Mr. Thank You (有りがとうさん, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1936)

Mr. Thank YouBus trips might be much less painful if only the drivers were all as kind as Mr. Thank You and the passengers as generous of spirit as the put upon rural folk travelling to the big city in Hiroshi Shimizu’s 1936 road trip Mr. Thank You (有りがとうさん, Arigatou-san). Set in depression era Japan and inspired by a story by Yasunari Kawabata, Mr. Thank You has its share of sorrows but like its cast of down to earth country folk, smiles broadly even through the bleakest of circumstances.

Mr. Thank You is everyone’s favourite bus driver. In fact, some of his passengers have even deliberately decided to “miss” the previous bus because they heard he was driving the next one. It’s not hard to see why, he’s a good a driver and a very polite, nice young man who’s been given the affectionate “Mr. Thank You” nickname because of his habit of shouting a loud thank you to everyone who moves out of the way for his bus to pass in the narrow mountain roads (the aforementioned pedestrians are also to be seen waving wildly and shouting his nickname back at him as he grins at them in the rear view mirror). He’s also prepared to stop and pick up passengers along the way as well as carrying messages between villages and filling requests for the latest records to hit Tokyo stores.

Mr. Thank You was apparently shot without a firm shooting script other than the inspiration of Kawabata’s story so the dialogue has a very immediate, contemporary feeling. There isn’t so much of a story as a journey taken with this disparate group of people all travelling from one place to another for various different reasons with the small interjections of other passersby on the roadside. The main drama occurs between a woman and her daughter who have such ashen faces they might as well be ascending the gallows, a very modern whiskey swilling travelling woman, and a grumpy guy with a handlebar moustache who seems very anxious about the bus being delayed by all these pleasantries. Along the way, Mr. Thank You offers commentary on some of the people he knows from his regular trips which amounts to a collection of sad stories decrying the state of the nation in which fathers are selling their daughters and mad men wander the streets searching for lost love.

“Young women used to laugh, but you never hear that now.” Says one passenger glancing at the sad face of a girl on a bus to the city. The mother and daughter seem reluctant to talk about their journey but it’s obvious to all that the girl is to be sold to a geisha house, never to see her home again. Mr. Thank You is sympathetic to her plight whilst silently listening to the lamentations of his customers like a sober barman. At one point he wonders out loud if he might be better off driving a hearse – acknowledging his own complicity in taking money for escorting this poor girl off to a life of rack and ruin. The flirtatious modern woman sitting behind him (most likely a prostitute herself) reminds him that women who pass these mountains rarely make a return journey, perhaps there is another way he could help her even if he can’t do the same for everyone.

Shimizu also stops a minute to consider the human costs of all this rapid progress. Taking a brief break from driving, Mr. Thank You chats to an acquaintance who has been working on the road building programme. A Korean migrant, she is among the most put upon of workers. She hoped she might have enough money to ride on Mr. Thank You’s bus just the once, but no sooner has one road been completed than she’s despatched off to build another one on another mountain so she’ll have to bid him goodbye. Mr. Thank You (seemingly quite taken with her and sorry to hear they may not meet again) offers to let her ride for free but she looks back at the masses of other people who are walking the mountain passes because they can’t afford the bus either and says it’s OK, she will stay with them, walking onward with everyone else caught in the same predicament as herself.

Filmed in 1936 Mr. Thank You has an extremely modern sensibility with a lot of naturalistic location shooting outside of the cramped environment of the bus which forms the main setting for the drama. The bus drives onward without stopping as obstacles fade from view only to reappear in the rear view mirror like ghosts, phantom images reflected on the landscape here one minute and gone the next. Time and history are marching on though one gets the impression Shimizu at least does not approve of the way his country is heading. The passengers on Mr. Thank You’s bus all have their troubles, but they’re trying to do the best they can by putting a brave face on it. They laugh, they drink, they sing but eventually they will all have to get off the bus, away from the careful protection of Mr. Thank You, and return to land of badgers and foxes where it’s every man for himself and those who cannot pay the fare will have to walk the rest of the way on their own two feet alone.

Mr. Thank You is the second of four films in Criterion’s Eclipse Series 15: Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu box set.

Scene featuring the Korean migrant worker (with English subtitles)