Every year LIFF puts together an archive strand with a specific theme. In 2019 this was a tribute to ‘Mother Cutter: Women Who Shaped Film’. I saw two features, both introduced by a young woman who I don’t think give her name and there are no credits in the programme. She told us something about the films and provided a brief biography of the editor. Osaka Elegy is a Mizoguchi Kenji female-centred melodrama, edited by Sakane Tazuko. The introduction was useful but it would have been good to say something about the editing approach and perhaps some examples to look out for.
The screening was from an archive print which I assumed was 35mm. It was quite ‘soft’ and a little worn. I note that there are both DVD and Blu-ray discs available, but judging by DVD Beaver’s excellent service, the original print for these was no better than the one we watched. The mid-30s was when Mizoguchi really broke through to commercial success in Japan and this story (which he originated) is a contemporary-set melodrama. At its centre is Ayako (Yamada Isuzu), a switchboard operator at the offices of a pharmaceutical company. Her father has been dismissed from his post at another company, having embezzled the sum of ¥300. Ayako in desperation decides to take up her boss’s offer of an apartment if she will become his mistress. She hopes the money to recover her father’s reputation (and job) will come from him. This simple plot reminds me of a number of other films. The ‘switchboard operator’ is almost iconic of the ‘modern woman’ in the 1930s – and into the 1960s with Dusan Makaveyev’s 1967 Yugoslavian film sometimes known as The Tragedy of the Switchboard Operator. More germane might be the Barbara Stanwyck pre-code film Baby Face (US 1933) in which Ms Stanwyck is a lowly clerk who sleeps her way to the top of the building – literally, since that is the office of the big boss.
But since this is a familiar Mizoguchi narrative about a woman struggling against a patriarchal society, the basic plot is developed into a complex interlocking of male attitudes towards an ‘active’ young woman like Ayako – active in the sense of doing things for other people and for herself in the face of disapproval. There is a young man who might be a suitor and another older man – as well as her father and her brother Hiroshi who needs tuition fees to finish his degree. None of these men seem to care about how their own behaviour will have consequences for her.
The quality of the print did make it difficult to fully appreciate what Mizoguchi and his creative team were able to do with relatively few resources on this shoot. Japan was relatively late to fully adapt to sound production. Mizoguchi had made over 50 films by this time but it was still early days for sound. Also this was one of the films he made for an independent company after several years working at Nikkatsu’s Kyoto studio. Osaka Elegy is a melodrama presented with a sense of realism embodied in the sets and setting and the feel for modernity in 1930s Japan. Miki Minoru was already established as Mizoguchi’s cinematographer and the pair would go to make many more films together. Much of Osaka Elegy was shot using small group compositions framed in long shot with relatively few close-ups. Some compositions in depth are striking and I was intrigued by some of the sets. The apartment which Ayako’s boss rents for her is Western in style and could be an upmarket pad from a Hollywood film of the period. Ayako is dressed in both traditional and modern Western outfits. Like Miki, Yamada Isuzu had already made several films with Mizoguchi and would go on to become one of the greatest Japanese screen actors, working well into the 1980s.
The Japanese title for the film is a reference to the Naniwa Bridge in Osaka. The image above is from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com and gives an idea of what Mizoguchi and Miki might have achieved with better equipment. The bridge was a significant architectural feature of the modernisation of Osaka in the early 20th century (as were the streetcars).
I always enjoy the opportunity to see archive prints at the Hyde Park Picture House. I just wish the prints from 1930s Japan were in better condition. There is a lot to say about Mizoguchi’s work in the mid-1930s and the film merits more attention. I find it difficult to say anything specific about Sakane’s editing of the film, except to note that the film is very short (for a feature) but still says a great deal and transitions smoothly between scenes. Researching details of Sakane’s career I came across a paper on her by Xinyi Zhao on the ‘Women Film Pioneers Project’ website. This is an illuminating read which I urge you to access. The working conditions in Japanese studios in the 1930s meant that an unusual figure like Sakane (from a wealthy family and with early-onset cinephilia developed a strong working relationship with Mizoguchi for whom she started as a dogsbody and eventually became assistant director as well as editor. I expect that she had a considerable input into those female-centred melodramas. She had made her directorial debut in 1936 with a period drama New Year’s Finery at the same small studio where she worked with Mizoguchi. This made her the first Japanese woman to direct a film. The male critics savaged the film and she didn’t get the opportunity to make another and she returned to Mizoguchi’s production unit. The late 1930s militarism and imperial expansionism meant that her only chance of advancement was to embrace imperial policies in Manchuko and become a director of colonialist documentaries. This then caused problems for her attempting to return to the commercial Japanese film industry after 1945. I’m sure there is much more to discover about this remarkable woman.