Kenji Mizoguchi's Naniwa Ereji (Osaka Elegy) and Mikio Naruse's film, Nagareru (Flowing), are films that seem to speak to each other across the divide of time. Osaka Elegy came out in 1936, while Flowing came out in 1956, and so the films sit in history on either side of World War II. While the films were made nearly exactly twenty years apart from each other, and by different directors, both star the actress Isuzu Yamada, and both are deeply invested in exploring the condition of life for the women in their respective eras. Elegy and Flowing are inherently different films – they differ in their frames of reference, their directors, and subject matter. Yet both films provide commentary on the pre-war and post-war economic and social opportunities for women.
In Osaka Elegy, Isuzu Yamada plays Ayako Murai, a young working class girl who embodies the popular idea of a modern girl, or moga, that was Japan's answer to the flappers in American youth culture. Modern girls were presented as sexually promiscuous, financially independent working girls who were uninterested in politics or social concerns, and only in themselves and their affairs. Ayako is Mizoguchi's answer to the popular image of the modern girl – but he simultaneously subverts the image as he creates it.
By the end of the film, Ayako does become the image of the modern girl – finely coiffed hair, stylish accessories, western clothing – but she is styled in other images first. She is first dressed very simply, in Japanese style robes with her hair pulled into a modest bun. Ayako is the picture perfect obedient daughter. When her father is about to be arrested for embezzlement, she becomes the mistress of her boss – donning a more expensive kimono and the elaborate hairstyle of a bride. When she finds that the only way of supporting herself and her family is to continue to be the mistress of older men, Ayako dons the western look of the “modern girl.” In her patriarchal society, this modern girl is viewed as a threat because of her ability to provide for herself and choose her her sexual partners. But for Ayako, its just a costume for a roll she must play in order to survive.
When her former coworker, Susumu, who also had proposed marriage to her previously, comes to visit her at her own apartment, the dramatic nature of Ayako's costume is acted out. She greets him in one half of the room, and they sit down to a western style table and chairs, and she seems the master of this lavishly decorated apartment. Yet as she confesses to Susumu what she has done, becoming a mistress to support her family, she moves into the other half of the apartment – which is decorated in a very traditionally Japanese style. She becomes more defeated as the scene goes on, retreating further into the room – the illusion is revealed, and the audience and the actors have all been brought backstage. The illusion of the modern girl is destroyed, and economic mobility is confirmed to still be under the rule of patriarchal authority.
In Mikio Naruse's Flowing, Isuzu Yamada now plays Otsuta, the head geisha of a struggling geisha house. Here, the post-war outlook on economic authority for women is even more bleak. In Flowing there is barely even the illusion that it is glamorous or an option for the women to be the masters of their own money and destiny. The life as a geisha is not shown as an existence floating above the world, a sequence of delightful parties and merriment - but one of debt and duty, resentment and resignation. The world of the geisha is collapsing in around Otsuta, who strives to keep her house together, as being a geisha is what she is most suited to.
The Tsuta house seems to be a place of dead ends for the women who live in it. Otsuta is a middle aged woman long separated from her husband and father of her grown up daughter, Katsuyo. Once a renowned geisha, Otsuta has fallen on difficult times and has few junior geisha to support her house. Katsuyo, although brought up within a geisha house, never had skills for the arts, and feels unsuitable to ever be married. Someko is a senior geisha buried in debt, who is later abandoned by her much younger boyfriend. At the start of the film, the house takes on a new maid, Oharu, a widower who has been rejected from other households for being considered too old to do maid's work. For each of them, they have nowhere to go but the Tsuta house, and depend on its functions for their livelihood - even as the geisha profession is becoming less profitable. Their confinement to this lifestyle is absolute, unless they marry out of it – an option each of them has found is not for them. The film even rarely strays from the setting of the house, only occasionally going to the neighboring streets and stores. Economic and social mobility is not even an illusion for Otsuta anymore.
Even with the bleak outlooks portrayed in both films, their endings show that neither Ayako or Otsuta are defeated by their social confinement. The last sequence in Osaka Elegy shows Ayako in profile striding down a dark street – and then instead of just fading out, the camera swings around to see a closeup of Ayako walking straight towards us. The audience is forced to look at her, and on her face is not a look of resignation. She is walking straight ahead into the future.
Likewise, the women in Flowing do not give up on the geisha house. In the last sequence, Otsuta is singing and training young geisha students along with Someka. Katsuyo is practicing sewing in a room above the shamisen rehearsal. Outisde, the river continues flowing, and life continues on.