LIFF 2019 #8: Osaka Elegy (Naniwa erejî, Japan 1936)

Ayako (Yamada Isuzu) in her booth looks out into the office

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.

Ayako with her young office colleague in a modern café

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. 

The perils of affairs with older men – Ayako is seen at the bunraku theatre

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 Naniwa Bridge

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.

4 comments

  1. keith1942

    The young woman mentioned by Roy will have been Alice Miller who curated the ‘Retrospective’ programme. She is not credited in the Festival Guide but she is in the Festival Catalogue in the list of the Festival 2019 team.
    She certainly desrves credit for a very well researched and interesting selection. Unfortunately, whilst most of the titles come from the pre-digital era, only five were listed as 35mm prints. ‘Osaka Elegy’ was not aong these so if Roy saw the film from a 35mm print he was fortunate, The Catalogue lists the source as ‘Films sans Frontieres’, a French distribution company that deals in both theatrical and video releases. I could not find this film on their Web Pages, though they hold a number of titles by Mizoguchi.
    As for the quality, if it was film then titles from this period vary considerably. Some indeed are badly worn, but there are also prints in good ciondition. Some years ago I saw a good print of ‘The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums’/’Zangiku monogatari’, a fine 1930s title from Mizoguchi; and I have seen other good prints from the period.
    Every year the Japan Film Center have a tour programme which includes a clasic on 35mm; but sadly it has not, so far, visited Leeds; the pritns are suualy in good condition, Maybe the Festival or a local exhibitor could offer a venue for the next tour.

    • Roy Stafford

      Thanks Keith. I conclude from this that the print I saw was either the Blu-ray or another digital version of an archive print. Certainly it hadn’t been restored. It is a while since I saw a Japanese archive print though there was a 1953 film in the Japan Foundation Tour earlier this year.

      How does one get a copy of the LIFF Catalogue? I did hear one complaint that they were hard to find this year.

  2. keith1942

    Roy is right, it is The Japan Foundation; Tour; this year the classic was ‘Where Chimneys Are Seen’ (aka ‘Four Chimneys’) / ‘Entotsu no mieru basho’ (1953), directed by Heinosuke Gosho. This is a really fine drama and the last time I saw it [not this year] it was a good print.
    As for the LIFF Catalogue, there were hard to fin; I checked a friend’s copy. But it now seems there are some copies left, available at the Town Hall Box Office for £3.
    They only have a little more information than the Guide and this year do not have information on formats except for 35mm prints.

  3. keith1942

    I was wrong about the LIFF Catalogue; it does contain more information than the Guide. For every film there is a quoted paragraph; several of those in the ‘Mother Cutter’ programme include extracts with the editor in question .
    ‘Osaka Elegy’ has a slightly abbreviated extract from a review of a Criterion Box set by David Kehr in the New York Times. The entire paragraph is as follows:
    “For Mizoguchi “Osaka” and “Sisters” represented a radical stylistic breakthrough: the relatively conventional editing patterns of his earlier films vanish almost completely, to be replaced by long takes and slow, graceful camera movements. Scenes are often illuminated by a single light source that isolates the characters in a pale, luminous pool surrounded by absolute darkness. The frame seems to lose its edges: all that exists is a cone of light at the center of the screen. The influence of German Expressionism is apparent, but Mizoguchi takes the style one step further. These are not characters threatened by or struggling with an encroaching darkness, but individuals trying to generate some light and warmth in a world that has long gone dead.”
    The entire review can be found on the New York Times website.
    This is an ‘auterist’ review, so Kehr does not discuss the work of the editor, Sakane Tazuko. But Wikipedia has a page on her, including her work on other films, [like the fine ‘Taki no shiraito’ / ‘The Water Magician’, 1933] and, notably, as a pioneer woman director in Japanese Cinema with ‘Hatsu Sugata’ / ‘New Clothing’, 1936 and later a series of non-fiction films.
    In an earlier LIFF we enjoyed films by another pioneer woman director, Tanaka Kinuyo; here is another fine opportunity for presenting rare but important films.

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