Osaka Elegy (Japanese: 浪華悲歌, Naniwa Elegy) is a 1936 film written and directed by Kenji Mizoguchi and featuring many of the same actors as in his other 1936 picture, Sisters of the Gion.
The film starts off with a spat between Sonosuke Asai (Benkai Shiganoya) and his wife Sumiko (Yoko Umemura). He has "married up" in the family, she reminds him, after he expresses his longing to return to their sweet honeymoon days. He now despises her.
Sonosuke, who owns a drug company, invites one of his employees, telephone operator Ayako Murai (Isuzu Yamada), to dinner. She is reluctant to go with him. In the next scene she discusses another matter with her love interest Susumu Nishimura; Ayako's father has embezzled 300 yen from his company and will likely be arrested for the crime if the money isn't paid back soon. Susumu tells Ayako he can't help her. Discouraged, she returns home and gets into an argument with her father, who calls her ungrateful after she reproaches him for being irresponsible with money and for failing to deal with matters surrounding the crime he committed.
She resolves to pay back the money herself and agrees to serve as Sonosuke's mistress in a well-appointed apartment that he provides for her. They attend a Bunraku puppet show, where Sumiko (Sonosuke Asai's wife) catches them together. Yoshizo Fujino, a colleague of Sonosuke, comes to his friend's rescue, assuring Sumiko that the young Ayako is actually there with him. Sumiko doesn't appear convinced, and the affair doesn't last much longer, as she manages to track her husband down at his love nest. She finds him in bed feigning a fever, with Ayako dressed almost like a geisha and standing at his bedside. Sumiko has her husband taken home.
Ayako pays back the money her father took but is then made to feel responsible and guilty (by her younger sister no less) for her brother who, because of his father's squandering and unemployment, will not be able to complete his university degree unless the rest of his tuition is paid. So she becomes Yoshizo Fujino's mistress, to acquire enough money to help out her brother. She does get the cash and then sends it home, but her father hides it, telling his son and other daughter that Ayako is reckless and selfishly unconcerned for her family.
But as far as Ayako is aware, her family's problems are behind them and she can once again pursue the romantic love she initially sought from Susumu. She will even tell him that she had been playing the role of the mistress; if he truly loves her, he will understand why she did that and love her all the same.
This romantic outcome, however, does not transpire. Instead Ayako is made to feel she has done wrong, that she has "seduced" the older men for money. And Susumu, who now acts like an obedient little boy to Ayako as well as to the police chief, meekly accuses her of orchestrating the whole thing while suggesting he's a victim of her manipulation. Scorned by her father for being a "delinquent" and for bringing shame to their family, and left defenseless by her younger sister and older brother, she is kicked out (now wearing Western-style clothing).
Alone and without any place to go she wanders the night. She stands melancholic on a bridge (suggestive of suicide) and stares down at a clump of refuse floating in the river (symbolizing personal "pollution"). She then encounters the doctor (an acquaintance of Sonosuke) and boldly asks if there is a "cure for female delinquency." He tells her he has no idea and walks off. The question is next left to the audience—a shot of Ayako walking boldly and directly towards the camera, with her beseeching eyes seemingly fixed on us.
Mizoguchi depicted the roles of Japanese women in his films. He did not do this as a feminist but rather as an enthusiast of sorts, or a feminisuto, as the writer and intellectual Ian Buruma suggests in his 1984 book entitled Behind the Mask:
Mizoguchi is often called a 'feminisuto' in Japan. As with all Japanese-English terms, one cannot be too careful with this. Mizoguchi was never a fighter for women's rights. There is no evidence that he seriously considered possible, or even thought desirable, a real change in the state of affairs he so movingly depicted in his films. It would be more accurate, as the American film critic Audie Bock pointed out, to define a feminisuto as a worshiper of women. This Mizoguchi undoubtedly was.
Mizoguchi explored the suffering of women who had taken on certain roles or were pressed into them. Did he get some sadistic enjoyment out of this suffering? According to Ian Buruma, the prostrate position was Mizoguchi's favorite when shooting women in submissive roles. He was a frequent patron of brothels in Kyoto in the 1920s and self-proclaimed transmitter of venereal disease, who may have given his wife the syphilis that killed her. Many of his female characters seem to reflect aspects of his feminisuto side and the men seem to share his interests and desires, but this he counterbalanced in his films with a weighty measure of guilt and sense of responsibility. In Osaka Elegy, the guilt is not just Ayako's; it's also intended for the audience, or society on the whole, which Ayako transfers to us, or at least makes us aware of, with her imploring eyes at the very end.
The women Mizoguchi generally focused on could be placed into the categories of either whore or mother (or matriarch) with a few others who fit the categories of (romantic) lover and daughter, or at least try to do so. In Osaka Elegy Ayako strives for romantic love while a male-dominated society and her social status (financial dependence) forces her into the role of whore. Only when Susumu agrees to marry her does she make the sudden, almost mechanical switch to the role of mother (and Susumu immediately takes on the role of prepubescent son).
Yet she is unable to remain in this role, no matter how hard she tries to secure it straightaway, by virtually skipping into the kitchen to cook up a grand meal for her man. She has already revealed who she has been (in the role of whore), and while Japanese society would soon enough forgive her for the transgressions she's accused of ('Hate the crime, not the person' is the official stance of the law, the police chief tells her), she will nonetheless be banished for a time from this society. Mind you, this perceived failure or crime of hers is not her playing of the whore; the Japanese would not attach that, more Western type of morality to her actions. She is banished rather for causing waves in society—a disruption among upstanding citizens, a crease in the meticulously complex Japanese social fabric—as well as for hiding her roles and, in the eyes of others, neglecting to fulfill them (as a "delinquent") to the level which society deems adequate.