February 4, 2016
Sisters of the Gion – Japan, 1936
Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sisters of the Gion is a tale of opposites – of those driven by love and those whose sights are set on security; of individuals who see the world through slightly naïve eyes and those whose views have been rocked by events so life-shattering that we can only imagine the extent of their tragic nature; of infidelity for the privileged and hopes of fidelity doomed to be shattered. There are victims and victimizers, figures untrustworthy and those that trust them. And throughout the film, there is the foreboding sense of tragedy, the feeling that this is a story in which optimism is ultimately futile.
Many of these contrasts exist within two sisters, Umekichi (Yoko Umemura) and Omacha (Isuzu Yamada). Both of them are geisha, yet their lives lack the glamour and joy so often associated with women in that profession. When we do witness them smiling and acting stereotypically servile, we’re never allowed to forget that it is an act, and watching these two characters I could only see their choices as having been driven by economics. Umekichi is the more romantic of the two, a fault her sister attributes to her training at a pleasure school. In stark contrast to Umekichi, Omacha speaks of men and love with a vitriol that is both shocking and disturbing. That she can so quickly adopt the behavior of a sweet, good-natured young woman who laughs at jokes and serves tea with a smile may forever change the way you see geisha.
A rift develops between the two sisters when one of Umekichi’s patrons falls on hard times and she offers him a place to stay. Her sister’s response is nothing short of contempt, and almost immediately she begins to scheme a way to get rid of him. The film also introduces us to several male characters. In addition to Umekichi’s patron, Shimbei Furusawa (Benkei Shiganoya), there’s Kimura, a young man whom Omacha initially pins her hopes of a better life on; Jurakudo, an well-to-do acquaintance of Furusawa’s, who takes an instant liking to Umekichi; and Sangoro Kudo, Kimura’s boss, who unwisely decides not to take his own advice. At times, each of these men represents hope and then disappointment, as each in their own way proves unable or unwilling to be what the sisters want them to be. Then again, how can they? While some are weak-minded, others are adulterers, and as the saying goes, those who betray their wives are prone to betray their mistresses.
According to contemporary thought, the geisha profession was a noble one, and it was only until the end of World War II when the line between geisha and prostitutes became blurred. This may be true, yet here Mizoguchi shows us that the life of a geisha was far from rosy prior to the Second World War. I’m reminded of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times, in which a young man speaks of the opportunities of his times, yet never thinks that the change should also benefit the young woman whose comfort he has sought time and time again. In Sisters of the Gion, we watch as wealthy men toy with both their wives and the geisha whose comfort they imply that they prefer. Never, however, does that preference translate into anything more than fleeting moments of something resembling happiness.
Sisters of the Gion fascinates while simultaneously breaking our hearts. I found myself both sympathizing with Umekichi and understanding the actions of Omacha. After all, when the world seems to be against you, which is does to Omacha, it is believable and somewhat reasonable that you would think of your own interests first. This does not condone her behavior, nor does it excuse Kimura’s. However, it does present viewers with a complex picture, one of a world in which men have the advantage and it is oh so easy for some women to fall and be unable to get back up. (on DVD as part of Criterion’s Eclipse 13: Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women)
3 and a half stars
*Sisters of the Gion is in Japanese with English subtitles.