Sisters of the Gion (1936, Kenji Mizoguchi)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

The original intention of this blog was to share my progress as I moved through the canon of classic world cinema; as it turns out, for much of the time I find myself uncomfortable speaking at length about films I have newly discovered, even if I truly love them. The reason is not that they give me little to respond to — on the contrary, there’s almost always so much in them — but that as I feel my way through the past, I don’t have the context yet to speak with confidence about most of the celebrated movies I’m now seeing for the first time. Any essay I write will necessarily be a work in progress for a first-time viewing of a work by a filmmaker or from a country or a movement I’m just getting to know. Sisters of the Gion, for example, is only the second film by Kenji Mizoguchi — Japanese master director who came to be internationally renowned in the last decade of his life, and forever after — I have seen, following The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums earlier this year. My knowledge of his life and films is presently limited, and I cannot provide the kind of historical or holistic perspective that you would see in, say, my Hitchcock reviews. But the problem is that when confronted with a film like Sisters of the Gion, when faced with its compassion, its aesthetic beauty, its cunning and total mastery of the craft of filmmaking, the experience is such that a shortened or roughly encapsulated response seems wholly insufficient. Not when a film so moves and shakes me that it temporarily makes all other cinema seem entirely irrelevant. So the thoughts to follow are informal and incomplete, but absolutely sincere.

With Osaka Elegy, Sisters of the Gion is one of the earliest Mizoguchi films to pass into some degree of immortality, though it’s widely considered one of his lesser works (which means he will most likely be the subject of many haphazard essays like this one). His films are known for their status as serious, naturalistic sociopolitical examinations of Japanese life; but while Last Chrysanthemums, from a few years later, is fascinating because of its specificity to the time and place of its choosing (Osaka and Tokyo in the 1880s), Sisters achieves a certain universality despite its focus upon the lives of two geisha. In its broadly moral interpretation of how their lives unravel, one finds a strong if slightly nuanced layer of feminism.

The Gion of the title is a “pleasure district” of Kyoto and, in the film, the home of Umekichi (Yōko Umemura) and her younger sister Omocha (Isuzu Yamada). Umekichi has the patronage of a shop owner named Furusawa (Benkei Shiganoya) who’s gone bankrupt; when Furusawa’s wife gets fed up with him, he walks out on her and begins mooching off the gentle, naively accommodating Umekichi, to the chagrin of the more skeptical, manipulative Omocha. In their conversations it’s made very clear that Omocha has no personal use for the men she’s forced to rely upon for her well-being, and she never wavers from this well-earned cynicism. Through various machinations she’s able to rid the house of Furusawa without her sister knowing, while she simultaneously falls into the center of a mostly unrelated blowup between a young man and his father slash employer; the former ends up being fired and seeking revenge, validating Omocha’s feelings about her and her sister’s oppressed state. Umekichi finds out the truth about Furusawa’s departure but is then let down just as unceremoniously by him, even as he makes a show of devotion and dedication to her, and once again Omocha is shown to be correct. Hauntingly, Mizoguchi closes the film with a long monologue, a cry in the night, by her — begging to know why women are subjected to such treatment, why such a thing as a geisha even exists. It’s impossibly powerful — and giddy, even mobilizing in its directness and emotion.

Initially it’s difficult to know just what to make of the fact that Omocha, with her nontraditional clothes and modern attitudes, is giving voice to radical, righteous thoughts about the subservient roles expected of women (in Japan, but also everywhere), given that she also is shown clearly as a much colder, more bitter person than her sister — at least, we’re trained by other films to believe that’s the way we’re meant to see her. What we learn, however, is that her attitude is completely earned, and a necessary guard. In an abstract sense we find ourselves liking and sympathizing with Umekichi, with her patience and the genuine love she demonstrates toward Furusawa, but “likable” and “correct” are different matters entirely; while both women seek out men for financial security, even taking Furusawa’s cavalier laziness into account, it feels like his relationship with Umekichi is the one shred of warmth in a film full of so much drab brutality. However, what makes the denouement of Sisters of the Gion so breathtaking, so devastating, is that it’s as unerring in its honesty and cynicism as a film like Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole: Omocha is physically attacked and Umekichi, leaving a visibly concerned Furusawa behind at the small room they’re now sharing, chides her about how this is what she gets for being unkind to men. Omacha rightfully responds that she did nothing to provoke the treatment she received, and Umekichi then learns that she has once again been deserted by her lover. This is not a moment of bets being hedged or of ambiguity about sexual equality, or of pure shame being cast upon these women for the lives they lead; it is not the end of Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, as easy to interpret as a screed against the independence of woman as for the opposite. It’s an unmistakable indictment of the men swirling around the sisters, of their hypocrisy and apathy, and an expression of loathing for establishment mores. Umekichi is punished for her faith in men. Omocha is punished because she has faith only in herself. A woman simply cannot win. It’s shattering to see a film from 1936 express this kind of tortured frustration in words and visuals that are almost unimaginable now, that most assuredly would be toned down and prettied up for a modern-day viewer.

Which isn’t to say that this film is not eye-gougingly gorgeous, and a handy primer for anyone who doesn’t understand the inherent superiority of black & white film stock. Mizoguchi’s signature is to shoot these delicate scenes, with marvelous depth and clarity, in long shot with extended takes; the effect is cinematic rather than stagy because the camera movements are so versatile and immersive. It feels like one is on the outside, eavesdropping on robustly detailed but desperate lives being led. He also indicates a masterful skill with actors, with both leading women truly superb but especially Yamada, a regular of Mizoguchi’s films and later of Akira Kurosawa’s. Hers is a magnetic presence — as soon as she first walks into a scene playing out between her sister and her patron, Omocha draws us to her with her effortless, casual rhythm and sense of obvious incredulity at the situations developing around her. Each time she slips briefly into her deferential geisha persona, it’s as unnatural and jarring to us as it seems to her. The only false note in any of the performances is a bit of overwrought “drunk” acting from Fumio Okura, playing an antique dealer who figures in one of Omocha’s elaborate schemes. The film’s incredible gravity and completeness comes about in large part because of the combination of these subtle, emotive performances and Mizoguchi’s absorbingly unorthodox use of the camera, the distance it keeps from events and the care we must take in bearing witness to them.

The greatest thing about exploring cinema in depth is when a film can genuinely surprise you, shake you to your core, and Sisters of the Gion did that for me to an extent few of the wonderful, provocative films of the 1930s that I’ve seen recently have. I found myself flashing back to the feeling I got when I first saw All About Eve or Robert Wise’s I Want to Live!, the sense of shock and validation that a film would so emphatically up-end my own expectations about it. A movie’s actual radicalism of message can be enhanced immeasurably by the knowledge of how much it was pushing against, and this is easily as true of Japan in the 1930s as of America in the 1950s. In his calm, methodical way, Mizoguchi proves himself a courageous storyteller here. I’m thrilled to continue discovering his work.

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