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Sunday, August 12, 2012

NANIWA EREJI / OSAKA ELEGY (1936)

Kenji Mizoguchi found his great subject in this modern story about a high-spirited office girl who sabotages her own prospects to get her father out of debt & to raise tuition expenses for her brother. The theme, also seen in his period pieces, boils down to the limited choices for women in Japanese society*, but even this contemporary tale finds Isuzu Yamada’s character with few options beyond agreeing to live as her boss’s mistress, and to suffer the social consequences. Too ashamed (or is it proud?) to reveal her reasons, she is despised at home, despised in society (even her headdress singles her out as living a sham life), and eventually despised by the young man she should have married. (A sequence involving the police is almost too painful to watch.) The film gets off to a bumpy start, switching in a confusing manner from the girls’s home, the boss’s home and life at the office in an abrupt fashion that is likely the fault not of Mizoguchi, but of lost footage. (The original running time may have been 90 minutes, which means two reels of material has gone missing.) But once the relationships become clear, the missing footage & spotty look fade away while Mizoguchi’s strengths come into focus. Later films would add dramatic & visual nuance, but his feminist slant is already firmly in place and devastatingly effective.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *This is the earliest Mizoguchi available, so we have to make assumptions about his first dozen films . . . and put our faith in the error-prone hands of IMDb & Wikipedia. Yikes!

DOUBLE-BILL: Criterion has this in a 4-film Mizoguchi set called FALLEN WOMEN, but the swinging big band music that plays under the credits triggers thoughts of Hollywood where Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck would have snagged the lead. Try Stanwyck in an early (pre-Populist) Frank Capra pic like FORBIDDEN/’32. Or maybe Davis as a principled street walker who also sacrifices for family in MARKED WOMAN/’37. It’s very melodramatic, in the usual Warners manner, but with a great last shot not so different from Mizoguchi’s here.

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