The shōshimin-eiga (petit-bourgeois film) is a subgenre of the gendai-geki genre that explicitly explores class-differences and the daily life full of struggles of the lower classes. The beginnings of this subgenre are found in the light comedies by director Yasujirō Shimazu (Father (1923)).
Yet, the most well-known directors in this genre are, of course, Yasujirō Ozu (1903–1963), Shimazu’s former assistant, and Mikio Naruse (1905–1969). A lesser well-known but not unimportant director in this genre is Heinosuke Gosho, who directed Where Chimneys Are Seen (1953), An Inn at Osaka (1954) [based on Takitaro Minakami’s novel], Takekurabe (1955) and Yellow Crow (1957).
After an argument with the director at the Tokyo headquarters, Kyōichi Mita (Shuji Sano) is demoted and transferred away to Osaka. His meagre salary does not allow for a decent living. In fact, he has been hopping from inn to inn as to avoid the raising monthly rent. One night, at a restaurant, Ossan (Kamatari Fujiwara) hears his lament and introduces him to a cheap inn called Suigetsu in Tosabori. Not that much later, Tawara (Toshio Hosokawa) and Uwabami (Nobuko Otawa), a geisha who fancies him, stumble in Suigetsu to call on him.
Gosho’s An Inn in Osaka offers a slice of life story about the struggles, the problems, and the hopes and desires of the common man and woman. His narrative explores in a refined manner how money, or a lack thereof, impacts one’s subjective position and how one’s (dire) financial situation guides one’s acts and signifiers. In fact, An Inn In Osaka powerfully shows how the hunger of the post-war capitalistic machine makes victims and poisons ‘humanity’ by problematizing the social bond. The increasing darkness of the narrative is function of the indirect effects of the blind blossoming of this machine. The first effect is the rise of subjective conflicts – conflicts between hopes and wishes and their continued frustration, and the second effect is the promotion of a ‘modern’ selfish monetary desire.
The ravage this machine causes is explored by tracing Mito’s trajectory in Osaka. The character of Mito allows such exploration because he, in a certain sense, unspoiled by the desire such system promotes. If he can be called old-fashioned, it is because his ‘traditional’ manner of thinking about interpersonal dynamics is determined by the idea of human feeling and not by profit. His way of thinking, encapsulated in the signifier ‘responsibility’, is a kind of traditional thinking that is increasingly problematic within a ‘western’ styled corporatism.
Yet, before the narrative uncovers the new style of darkness that blossoms in Japanese society, the spectator is confronted with the mystery of Mito’s disinterest in the female charm. Yet, his disinterest has, as is quickly evoked, two reasons: one external and one subjective one. The external reason is, obviously, his dire financial situation. He simply does not have the financial means to afford any kind of romantic feelings. Secondly, there is already a woman on his mind: his ill mother in Tokyo. Yet, it is not only her faltering health that preoccupies him, but he is also burdened by a fear of failing her and, inadvertently, causing her death. In a certain sense, he does not want to dishonor his mother (Narra-note 1). Therefore, he tries to avoid being charmed by the female form and, when such female charm has charmed him, refuses to act upon his romantic interest (Narra-note 2).
The exploration of the societal darkness starts when Mita sells his grandfather’s watch. This act is important, as it underlines his decision to leave his past in Tokyo behind and accept his current life in Osaka. It is this subjective decision that allows him to engage with Orika (Mitsuko Mito) and Otsugi (Hiroko Kawasaki), two servants of the inn, at a more ‘interpersonal’ level. Orika struggles with her husband’s sudden demand to financially support him and Otsugi, a widowed mother, does her best to meet the needs of her adolescent son (Narra-note 3). Another woman with whom he succeeds to interact on a more interpersonal level is Uwabami, a ‘modern’ low-ranking geisha who drinks (too much) to sedate her occupational suffering – a suffering arising from the need to entertain and seduce unpleasant costumers – and to gain some form of satisfaction (Narra-note 4). Her suffering is also function of the pressure she feels to keep her job, as she uses some of her salary to support her younger brother, a father of two who was fired by his company.
Yet, Orika, Otsugi, and Uwabami are not the only women he encounters while living at the inn in Osaka. He also meets Oyone (Sachiko Hidari), a ‘modern girl’ who shows an active interest in wealthy men. Yet, her interest in Mr. Noro (-), is not caused by love but is motivated by a desire to escape her life as a poor servant. And lastly, he also encounters Omitsu (Kyōko Anzai), a young unmarried girl who works very hard to support her ill father. Yet, as her hard work is not enough to deal with her financial hardships, she lets herself be swayed by Mr. Noro to sell her body to him (Narra-note 5).
By exploring these different subjectivities, An Inn In Osaka subtly sketches out the divide between proletarian traditional austerity and well-off western lavishness. Yet, as spectators will readily notice, the divide is losing its radicality. Western elements like suits have become part of the proletarian ‘uniform’ while traditional elements like stylish and refined kimono have turned into signs of prosperity. In this sense, An Inn In Osaka also highlights how a blossoming capitalist modernity problematizes certain traditions and forces the adoption of western images and signifiers to appease society’s thirst for modernity and to ensure one’s flow of income. This impact is evident in the increase of neon signs that signal the blossoming of a night-life district.
An Inn in Osaka, furthermore, touches upon societal problems that arise from the divide between rich and poor and the insufficiency of the social assistance system within times of economic hardship. Gosho‘s narrative highlights the rise of swindling, the temptation of stealing, the allure of prostituting oneself, the appeal of sects, and the blossoming of un-official loans. Yet, in the case of swindling nor stealing, Gosho underlines that neither are an attempt to cheat the wealthy, but to cheat subjects all layers of society.
The composition of An Inn in Osaka is simple and straightforward – framing Mito’s trajectory with a concatenation of static shots. Yet, this simplicity does not mean Gosho’s composition is visually boring. Gosho keeps the audience visually engaged by crafting many elegantly composed shots for his composition, shots that seemingly spontaneously exploit the geometrical dimension of ‘traditional’ interiors (e.g. the position of the counter in the restaurant, the stairs in the inn) and, to a lesser degree, exteriors. The increasing darkness of the narrative is emphasized by the musical accompaniment – the darkness is, in a certain sense, reverberated in the dramatic musical accompaniment.
An Inn At Osaka might not be an easy narrative to get into for the contemporary spectator, but Gosho’s film remains an important document that traces how the post-war capitalistic machine of modernity poisons subjectivity by ‘promoting’ a selfish monetary desire, slowly emptying social relations, and causing a blossoming of a wide range of subjective conflicts and societal problems. Yet, should we merely find a way to laugh at our own unhappiness within such problematic system?
Narra-note 1: Mita’s mother, on the other hand, is worried about her son committing suicide. This fear compelled her to ask Tawara to keep an eye on him while he is in Osaka.
Narra-note 2: The narrative also implies that Mita has already had a bad experience with a ‘cheating’ woman. If this is the case, his refusal of the seductive female charm also becomes an attempt to avoid being deceived again.
Narra-note 3: Yet, by taking on the job as a servant, Otsugi also chose to live separately from her son, thus frustrating her desire to meet him.
Narra-note 4: She also utilizes alcohol to get her annoying costumers drunk and avoid the occupational need to seduce them.
Narra-note 5: A minor character in the narrative is Ossan, the brother of the innkeeper (Eiko Miyoshi). Ossan is a loafer and a bit of a womanizer. It is subtly implied that he uses most of the money he receives from his sister to satisfy his desire to enjoy the female form.