Naniwa Elegy 浪華悲歌 (1936)


First, have a look at that movie poster.  Right-to-left horizontal writing, did it used to be like that in the old days?  I mean, if it is even on a movie poster, presumably it was easy to read.  I’ve heard that most of the language reforms came after WWII, so maybe that is why you don’t see it anymore?  Beats me.

Anyway, the main character is a young OL-type office worker who is surrounded by worthless people.  Her father stole money from work and keeps getting hounded by the company to pay it back or face the police.  Our heroine, the eldest woman of the household (we are told her, her older brother, and her younger sister were raised by their father) wants to save her family.  Her father now just goes out fishing and drinking, her brother is off in college and never writes, and her sister is still in school.  Her father, uselessly, just hopes that soon his son will get a good job and take care of them.

Things are similarly bad at work.  She is hit on by her chauvinist but spineless bosses, and her sweetheart there says he can’t do anything for her.  So finally she relents and starts dating her bosses for money.  She finally gets enough to pay off her father’s debts and is relieved to be able to give up this racket and go take up her sweetheart from work on his offer of marriage.  Just as she is going to meet him, she runs into her sister and finds out that her brother needs money to pay off his tuition before he can graduate.  Once again she goes back to the company owner and gets the money her brother needs before kicking the owner out.  She sends it to her father with instructions not to tell her brother that is was from her.  Then she calls over her sweetheart, tells him everything, and asks him to marry her.  He is shocked, but just as he is about to leave the police show up, called by the company owner.

At the police station her sweetheart disavows ever promising to marry her, says he was tricked by her, and begs the police to let him go so he doesn’t risk losing his job (he says he has no parents or siblings so if he were fired he wouldn’t know what to do).  The police let him go, and though our heroine gets all the blame, they let her off with a warning and send her home with her father.

At home, she’s happy to see her father, brother, and sister all home and having dinner together for the first time in a while.  But they want nothing to do with her.  The story was in the papers and they’re all ashamed and want her to leave home.  She does, and the final shot is of her on a bridge, lost and alone with an uncertain future.

I thought it was interesting that even in the final confrontation with her brother, she never brings up the money she earned for him; she simply leaves.  No one knows or appreciates what she did for her family, but she did it.  The things were done, their futures are secure, so does it matter whether or not people appreciate or even know who to thank?  I couldn’t help thinking of some groups I encountered in college who didn’t consider anything worth doing unless it got into the papers.  But they were wrong; worthwhile things are worth doing even if no one ever hears about them.  In any case, I think the plot is very Japanese in it’s theme of silent, anonymous self-sacrifice.

Additionally, I found it to be a rather feminist story.  The men in the movie are universally weak, cowardly, and useless.  All the men she is surrounded by, despite their much better positions relative to hers, can’t seem to do anything.  They go back on promises, won’t help anyone, and can’t stand up to anyone.  But, despite that, none of them have any problem telling a woman off.  Her sweetheart is basically the heroine’s foil.  His family is similarly useless (he doesn’t have any and hers is in debt), he works for the same company, and is of a similar age.  But while she feels compelled to go far out of her way to help others, he persistently refuses to help her; where she is stony faced and silent when confronted by the police, he cowers and begs; where she is willing to quit her job and face down her employers, losing his position at work is his biggest fear; and while she forgives those close to her right up to the end (her ungrateful family), he casts away the closest person to him as soon as things start to go south (the heroine).

Overall I’d say it was quite good.  Wikipedia calls the director, Kenji Mizoguchi one of the “three masters” of Japanese cinema of that period (along with Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa), so I suppose it was about time I’d seen one of his films.  In any case I’d recommend it.

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