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The Downfall of Osen

The Downfall of Osen (折鶴お千, or Orizuru Osen) is a 1935 silent film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi and with benshi accompaniment. It stars Isuzu Yamada (who's also in both of Mizoguchi's 1936 films, Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion) and is based on a novel by Izumi Kyōka, which I think has yet to be translated into English.

This is one of Mizoguchi's most acclaimed early films, but it didn't hold my attention as much as The Water Magician (1933), to which it's similar in terms of themes: the maternal lover, the destitute and ostensibly asexual boy who dreams only of completing his education, the woman's total sacrifice of body and mind for the boy's success. In The Water Magician, the heroine Shiraito (played by Takako Irie), ultimately sacrifices her very existence, though interestingly Mizoguchi chose with Osen to have her first go insane rather, obsessed past the brink of madness as she was to protect the boy from the corruption and evils of society.

A couple other things struck me with this one. First, the narrative is nonlinear. It begins with the boy (now a man and doctor) and Osen at a train station, where operations are temporarily shut down due to a freak downpour. Neither knows the other is there. Both are lost in their memories. And much of the rest of the film is composed of flashbacks (also not chronological) and even a flashback within a flashback to a time way before the train station sequence, and then towards the end of it all the story returns us to the station before continuing into "the future." What? This is postmodernism, but wasn't the postmodern narrative introduced in films a decade or two later? What other 1930s movie does this?

Second, I've read enough about Mizoguchi to get a sense that film scholars and critics tend to focus on the female characters and their roles in his films. But what about the male roles? With The Downfall of Osen I started imagining the Mizoguchi heroine as a pinball being knocked about until she ultimately falls and disappears between those final flippers. The bumpers are types of guys: innocent, iniquitous, dutiful, immoral, religious, etc. Sure our focus is centered on her as she tries to navigate these obstacles, sometimes nurturing but always bearing the brunt of what comes out of their mostly self-serving actions, but Mizoguchi was no doubt equally aware of the roles and representations of men in his pictures, and he may have interpreted his own desires, responsibilities, and conflicting inclinations through those male characters and probably how his own behavior might affect the other sex.

Mistress of a Foreigner

Mistress of a Foreigner (1930) (based on a novel by Gisaburo Juichiya) was also directed by Mizoguchi, but only around four minutes of it are known to exist. I watched what's left of the film after seeing The Downfall of Osen, and it's basically a dance performance set to music and book-ended by scenes of waves lapping a shoreline. Unfortunately there's very little information available in English or Japanese about this fragment or the film itself.

The Downfall of Osen (here and below)


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