Just how much is $300 worth to you? It's a question that Ayako Murai, played by Isuzu Yamada, must ask herself in the 1936 movie Osaka Elegy. Directed by master dramatist Kenji Mizoguchi, using a script written by Yoshikata Yoda from Mizoguchi's original story, the film examines young Ayako, a girl in her early 20s working as a switchboard operator at a pharmaceutical company, as she is confronted with a difficult offer at a time when she can really use some help. Her father (Seiichi Takekawa) is running out of time to pay back $300 he embezzled from his work, and Ayako is lacking in options. Her boss (Benkei Shiganoya) has offered to set her up in her own apartment so she can be his mistress. She gives in, trading her honor for the money to bail her father out. She even secures a new job for him.
It's a fairly simple moral conundrum, and a fairly simple plot, but Ayako is anything but a simple character. She is at first ill-tempered, and then accepting, and before long, even scheming. After things go wrong with the boss, she zeroes in on another old man from the company (Eitaro Shindo) and bilks him for money for her brother's tuition. It's hard to tell if she is truly troubled by her adopted lifestyle. She certainly likes the trappings that come with it, and her main complaint is being left high and dry when the boss' wife finds out (she is played by Yoko Umemura, who is also in the other film covered here, along with much of the rest of the cast).
Even so, Ayako is at heart a romantic, and it's in the courtship scene with Nishimura (Kensaku Hara), an admirer, that Yamada plays the role the most naturally. It's as if this is her true self, and the rest is the put-on we suspect. Yet, Mizoguchi keeps us on our toes. He underlines Ayako's deception--she tells Nishimura she works in a beauty parlor--by setting their pivotal scene in an artificial environment. They are dining inside a department store café, but the ambient noise is piped-in recordings of birds singing. In a true outdoor scenario, their melodic whistles would make the rendezvous idyllic. Here, we know the emotional framework cannot stand.
Mizoguchi, working with cinematographer Minoru Miki, shows a facility for arranging his shots to emphasize the social positioning of the different characters. When we are first introduced to Nishimura and Ayako, they are in different parts of the office, but in sight of one another. They are a separated by the glass booth where Ayako runs the phones. Mizoguchi uses a point/counterpoint set-up to go back and forth between them, foreshadowing the fact that despite being so close, there is much distance between the would-be lovers. Later, when Ayako returns home after her shame is revealed, Mizoguchi places Ayako in the extreme foreground, while her family gives her the cold shoulder in the background. It's easily the most heartbreaking sequence in Osaka Elegy. Ayako's family subjects her to a devastating double standard. Her father stole, but his sins are forgiven. Ayako did what she did to help out, but she is rejected as a "fallen woman."
In the final scenes of Osaka Elegy, Mizoguchi transforms uncertainty into defiant determination. The audience is made to be concerned for Ayako's well being, and then we are taken along as she makes the decision we hoped she would make for herself. In the last shots of the movie, Ayako walks on with a new pride and spring in her step. As Koichi Takagi's music rose, I half expected her to break out into song. The closing image is of Ayako walking toward the camera, looking those who would judge her (the audience), directly in the eye. She may not have solved her problems or even know where she's going, but in that look, we see Ayako is determined to be judged no more.
Isuzu Yamada returns in Mizoguchi's next movie, Sisters of the Gion, which was made the same year as Osaka Elegy and serves as a kind of companion film. In fact, there is a pretty smooth transition between. Osaka Elegy ends with movement, and Sisters of the Gion opens with it. The first thing we see is a tracking shot through a curio shop that is shutting down, passing by the vultures who've come to the bankruptcy auction, and over to Furusawa (Benkei Shiganoya), the failed owner. He is in the back room, being nagged by his wife, and he's had enough. Furusawa decides to leave and go live with his geisha mistress. There is another great tracking shot here, following Furusawa down an alleyway, and then crossing the street, stopping as he goes on in the other direction. There is a noticeable overall increase in movement in Sisters of the Gion. Mizoguchi and Miki travel with their characters, taking us down corridors and alleys as if we were entering into secret places, and the camera also probes these spied-upon lives. The film's final scene has a memorable zoom, emphasizing the main character's isolation and the pointed criticism in her closing speech.
That main character in question is Omocha (played by Isuzu Yamada), and she is the younger sister to Furusawa's mistress, Umekichi (Yoko Umemura). Both women a geisha, but there is enough age difference between them that their experience with the profession is different. Umekichi has been in the "pleasure district" since she was very young, whereas Omocha was able to complete an education first. As a result, Umekichi is more servile, whereas Omocha attempts to assert more control over her life. Sisters of the Gion is essentially the story of her trying to maneuver it so that both she and her sibling have wealthy patrons. To do this, Omocha must get rid of Furusawa, convince an admiring clerk at a kimono shop to make her a dress, and then manipulate both of the men's rivals into taking her and Umekichi on as permanent mistresses. She's pretty tricky, but all of her deviousness catches up with her. In the film's final act, too many of her schemes intersect, and it threatens to leave the girl stranded.
Again, however, Mizoguchi sees a social double standard in his melodrama. (He once again crafted the story, with Yoshikata Yoda drafting the screenplay. Pretty much the only member of the main team that changed here is the editor.) Omocha's final speech doesn't just stem from frustration over her own failure, but from the belief that she is only filling a required role, one that society asks of her and then blames her for. The men want the geisha, but then the girls are shamed for their efforts. "Why do there even have to be such things as geisha?" she cries.
It's an interesting question, and proof that the ethical hypocrisy of "slut shaming" has been around for quite a while. Despite Omocha's brattiness, and partially because of Yamada's charisma as an actress, our sympathies largely lie with her through Sisters of the Gion. She's right, her sister is a doormat, and Furusawa is a lout. The kimono clerk (Taizo Fukami) makes a stupid decision, but for selfish reasons. All the men want something from the geisha, and they want it without any lasting commitment or conseqeunce. Omocha sees that she has to look out for herself, because any one of these guys will--and does--leave her at the first sign of trouble.
Both Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion could have easily slipped into "crime doesn't pay moralizing," and had these been post-code American movies, they probably would have. What Mizoguchi has done is progressive, but he's sly about it. The drama is nuanced enough that neither the women nor those who dismiss them are completely right or wrong, and that's all the more daring when you think about it. People love absolutes, and they love to be absolved. Mizoguchi has taken a chance in confronting these cultural standards head-on and examining them honestly, putting blame where it belongs, including with some who may be watching. It's a gamble that pays off. Both films continue to be relevant nearly eighty years later, which is a sad commentary all on its own.