Kenji Mizoguchi’s first great film, Naniwa erejî, tells a complicated story, the through-line of which is this: Ayako Murai, a young telephone switchboard operator, becomes a kept woman in order to spare her father imprisonment after he has been caught embezzling, falls to being something in between a kept woman and a prostitute in order to pay her brother’s college tuition, and lands in the gutter, becoming a streetwalker, after her family tosses her out because she no longer meets their standards of respectability. Men thus use women, and women pay the consequences.
Critic Michael Grost has noted the indebtedness of Mizoguchi’s visual style here to Josef von Sternberg’s. Richly layered black-and-white compositions; luminosity; the extraordinary complexity of visual tones within a shot; “outdoor” camera movements detecting characters, indoors, through windows—all these suggest Sternberg’s influence, along with the feminist theme and the focus on, even obsession with, a female character. In place of Dietrich, Mizoguchi has Isuzu Yamada, whose performance as Ayako is brilliant.
But Mizoguchi eschews the glamorous closeups by which Sternberg tends to canonize female suffering. Osaka Elegy is a “distanced” film consisting of long shots and longish medium shots—until the end when, joltingly and piercingly, Ayako, suddenly and forever a prostitute, seemingly walks into and through the camera: a shot to die for. What a contrast between this and another moment outdoors at night, with rows of tall, daunting buildings lining the street in depth, and a solitary soul walking across a cross-street in the distant background: a dot. Here, in the tiny figure, is the beseiged humanity that Ayako represents. The buildings—a superlative instance of realism yielding to expressionism—represent the patriarchic and related forces arrayed against Ayako and others.
What gorgeous work Mizoguchi gets from his cinematographer, Minoru Miki.
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