1936 is still the early talkie era in Japan, even though Kenji Mizoguchi had first experimented with sound all the way back in 1930. Yasujiro Ozu was just releasing his first talkie the same year, for example. I haven't seen many Japanese films from this period, but on the evidence of Osaka Elegy I'd believe that the discovery of sound anywhere encouraged a certain vernacular irreverence. Another way of putting it is that Osaka Elegy reminds me a lot of American Pre-Code movies. What sets it apart is that in 1936 Japan modernity (as Americans knew it then) was still in the making. Mizoguchi shows us dramatic contrasts, the most notable being the way the two sexes dress. Many if not most of the men were western-style suits, while most of the women still wear traditional dress. That's true even of the switchboard operator in a modern office, and when Ayako (the late Isuzu Yamada) adopts chic western fashion late in the film it's a bit of a jolt. If anything it symbolizes how she's been stigmatized after some melodramatic sacrifices for her family. You could just about tell her story in Hollywood. Her father's a crook, her older brother's in college whining for tuition money and her younger sister's in school. She's the provider of the family by default and does what she has to do to keep everyone going. That means working overtime as a mistress for two of her bosses. Finally she plays the game too long, pushes too hard and gets slapped down, and her own family cuts her dead. Where's the gratitude? Dad, brother and sister are too busy being ashamed of the scandal she created. It seems convenient, somehow, for them to throw her out of the house. Fine, then. She takes a walk out to a bridge, but before you get ideas she walks right off and into the camera with an enigmatic expression somewhere between resignation and resolve. It might generously be described as defiance.
Mizoguchi is probably best beloved outside Japan for his late period pictures, the stuff of art houses: The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff. But he always came back to the theme of the fallen woman, ending his career with Street of Shame. He did enough of these stories to fill a Criterion Eclipse box set, and he felt that Osaka Elegy in particular was one of his first really good movies. I can't blame him for thinking so; it's a brisk, jazzy, discordant picture. The thing that might remind you most of Pre-Code is the way the women talk back to their men. Where's that modest deference you might have expected from pre-war Japanese women? The women of this picture answer with a collective scoff. Defer to these guys? It's enough that they get their way and get away with things a woman can't. The difference in dress between the modern men and the traditional women illustrates a double standard, and the mostly modern cityscape reminds you whose world this is, while Ayako's story shows the danger of a do-gooder gold-digger garbing herself in the same modernity. Hollywood's heroines of the time would hail her as a sister, and probably hire her as a maid.