Poppy (虞美人草, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1935)

Most closely associated with tales of female suffering in a patriarchal society, Kenji Mizoguchi’s signature themes are already apparent in the films which survive from the pre-war era. Even so, 1935’s Poppy (虞美人草, Gubijinso), adapted from a novel by Natsume Soseki, largely sidesteps the parallel powerlessness of its twin heroines in placing the central dilemma firmly on the shoulders of its conflicted hero, a young man who owes everything to a benevolent patron whose daughter he is expected to marry but is captivated by a young and capricious heiress and consequently torn between duty and passion.

In late Meiji, an old man, Inoue (Yukichi Iwata), washes graffiti off his front wall apparently scrawled by a man desperate to marry his daughter Sayoko (Chiyoko Okura) whose beauty he claims puts other to shame (Inoue looks on approvingly at the last part, and decides to leave it). Inoue intends his daughter to marry Ono (Ichiro Tsukida), a young man he took in as a starving orphan and raised to adulthood. Ono is currently in Tokyo preparing to complete his doctoral thesis and the pair are very much looking forward to moving there to live with him. While Ono has not forgotten them, he has embarked on a life of his own as a Tokyo student, falling in love with the flighty Fujio (Kuniko Miyake) while working as a part-time English tutor. She too is keen to marry him, despite the fact she is technically still engaged to someone else, Hajime (Daijiro Natsukawa), in a match which was orchestrated by her father many years ago. Fujio’s mother is acutely concerned with her marriage for a number of reasons, the first being that Kingo (Kazuyoshi Takeda), her step-son and the family’s heir, refuses to marry and rejects his inheritance but if Fujio remains single then the fortune reverts to him. Secondly, she dislikes the idea of Hajime as a son-in-law because he has repeatedly failed to secure a position in the diplomatic corps and is currently unemployed.

The problem rests with Ono, whose conflicting desires are characterised not so much in terms of love versus obligation but as ambition versus constancy. Instead of explaining in person to Mr. Inoue that he is grateful to him and has no intention of rejecting their family but thinks of Sayoko as a sister and therefore would like to politely decline the idea of marriage, he sends a friend, Asai (Toichiro Negishi), to explain that he’s too busy to think about weddings and wants to defer the conversation until after his thesis is completed. Of course, Mr. Inoue sees through this thin excuse right away and is offended on his daughter’s behalf. The friend warns him that Ono is “worthless”. “He’s interested in what’s fashionable. He’s stupid” Asai goes on, implying that he is not exactly choosing to marry the woman he loves rather than honour a vague suggestion from the past, but is opportunistically seizing the chance to marry up into the high society of late Meiji Japan (a feat near impossible for a man who was once a starving orphan).

Love is not so much a part of the equation as one would expect and neither are the feelings of either woman held in very high regard. Nevertheless, Kingo eventually tries to warn Hajime away from his sister, explaining that “women who seek pleasure are dangerous”. “When I fall in love, I won’t just sit quietly waiting for my lover. I’ll make passionate love to him” Fujio flirtatiously tells Ono, dangling a precious watch from her father which serves as an indication of betrothal and membership of the family. Fujio and her mother are actively using the only means at their disposal to control their own futures by making a match they believe more beneficial which will ensure they keep themselves within the family succession, suggesting that Fujio, like Ono, is acting less out of “love” than self-interest, something which is later reinforced by her offering of the watch to Hajime who casts it to the waves in insistence that he was never interested in what it represents. 

While Asai recounts his meeting with Inoue, he tells Ono that he’s making the right decision and that his best option from all angles is to marry Fujio, but Hajime overhears him and chimes in with contrary advice that he should think carefully and be true to himself. In essence, all Hajime is telling him is to own his decision and make sure he is willing to live with it or else be consumed by self loathing and misery. By this point, we perhaps expect that modernity will win, that all will accept that it is unreasonable to expect anyone to sublimate their own desires to honour an old obligation and most particularly that the women be expected to submit themselves to dynastic marriages arranged by their fathers, but the resolution is quite the reverse. The modernist Fujio is twice rejected, while Sayoko and her father leave the modern capital for the ancient Kyoto. Ono is forced into a reconsideration of his spiritual debt to the Inoues who he would be betraying in marrying Fujio for social gain which is to say that feudalistic, patriarchal values are subtly reinforced while Western individualism is disparaged with only Hajime standing up for emotional integrity which neither philosophy particularly respects. In the end, nobody is happy but everyone is resigned to their particular misery as their burden to carry in knowledge that they have acted properly which is perhaps as close to a condemnation of a still oppressive society as you could get in 1935. 


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)