Sunday, May 1, 2011

OSAKA ELEGY (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936, Japan)

The lamentations of a young girl who prays for the end to a means, but falls victim to stubborn cultural mores while selflessly sacrificing her integrity…and body. Kenji Mizoguchi directs this gritty and compelling tale of a young woman’s descent into delinquency, her fierce independence and stubborn resistance separating her from the status quo, severing familial bonds, a self-reflexive character who remains true to her own motives.

Ayako is the moral center of this retracting universe, victim of double standard and double cross. Mizoguchi reveals the heroine’s complex identity while never masking her flaws or elevating her good deeds above mundane desires: she is simply doing what she deems right, the only way she can earn money to pay her families debt. A poor telephone operator, she pimps her body to her boss and then his assistant in order to satisfy her father’s debt (he’s a thief who embezzled funds from his job). When her brother can no longer afford college, even though he has a good job in line after graduation, she prostitutes until his tuition is paid in full. Along the way she falls in love with Nishimura, his conservative values burdened by these affairs, she attempts to blackmail her employer so they can begin a new life. But she is impregnated not with life, but with the malignancy of moral judgment, and becomes an outcast to the men she sacrificed herself in helping. Mizoguchi depicts the men as stubborn and uncompromising, allowing their desire for sexual gratification while debasing Ayako for the same conduct.

Mizoguchi’s excellent camera movements and tracking shots, long takes and chiaroscuro lighting creates a static world of unchanging values, where human beings are lost in the neon glow like ghosts in the mist. He often shoots a scene through closed windows (could very well have influenced Robert Altman) for voyeuristic effect, a grim realism of secret lives of naked virtues. The final shot of Ayako, condemned by even the once compassionate Doctor, is both humiliating and profoundly noble: she accepts herself and her decisions and doesn’t ask (or desire) forgiveness. Spurned by everyone she loves, Ayako walks directly towards the camera, breaking the fourth wall…and our hearts.

Final Grade: (A)

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