Naniwa Elegy, or, as many know it, Osaka Elegy is often cited as Kenji Mizoguchi’s first real masterpiece. It won the Kinema Jumpo in 1936 as Japan’s third best film, and marks the first collaboration between Mizoguchi and his long time screen writer Yoshikata Yoda.
Naniwa Elegy is a bitter film. There is no other way to suitably describe it, especially in terms of its narrative effect. The story looks at Ayako Murai (played by Isuzu Yamada), a young female telephone switchboard operator whose life progressively spirals downwards through her interaction with society. Mizoguchi presents human interaction in the most clinical fashion possible. The relationships presented, especially between Ayako and her male acquaintances, lack compassion, and their meetings are treated as a series of transactions, where Ayako always seems to get exploited. For example, Ayako’s father tries to sell her off to settle his debts, her brother steals her money so that he may attend college, and her fiancé refuses to see her as a suitable partner in society. Finally, although she has done as much as possible for her family, she is still scolded as defiant, rebellious and ultimately immoral. As you can see through Ayako’s struggles, Mizoguchi paints a rather scornful image of the problems with a capitalist patriarchal society.
As in most of Mizoguchi’s films, women play a special role. More often than not, his films portray the role of women in society as tragic. Women in Mizoguchi films usually represent the backbone of society — they are expected to be loyal wives, good mothers, obedient daughters, dependant carers and models of purity. Such expectations placed upon Mizoguchi’s women compel them to seek independence in society, but ultimately they end up succumbing to the hypocrisy of its moral expectations. Ayako’s role in Naniwa Elegy is a prime example of this thematic trait, and is one of cinema’s strongest and most poignant critiques on the problems of patriarchal society.
Naniwa Elegy, made in 1936, marks the year where Mizoguchi not only set in concrete many of the thematic features that would appear throughout his career, but also many of the formal elements that would later make him one of the most inventive filmmakers in cinema’s history. One thing that you notice when watching Naniwa Elegy is that Mizoguchi overtly plays with the viewer, by manipulating editing, cinematography, and staging to refuse any clear expectations of character, story and plot structure. Moreover, through staging techniques, Mizoguchi prohibits the viewer from gaining an emotionally descriptive view of the protagonist. Ayako constantly presents her back to the camera, hides behind the mise-en-scene and retreats into the depth of the frame during emotionally charged scenes. Ultimately, we are withheld an expressive view of her until the final moment of the film, where she walks into the camera for a close-up. This final view of Ayako is the most powerful image in the film, and is often cited as one of the most absorbing images in Mizoguchi’s oeuvre. The image of Ayako staring into the camera and walking off, into the unknown, leaves the final outcome of the film open to viewer interpretation. However, one cannot resist the thought that her future will ultimately be bleak.
For any lover of cinema, Naniwa Elegy is definitely one to recommend. Its narrative will leave you feeling emotionally drained, while its formal construction will leave you captivated.