Monday, August 24, 2015

Kenji Mizoguchi | 祇園の姉妹 Gion no Shimai (Sisters of the Gion)

the infatuations of old men
by Douglas Messerli

Yoshikata Yoda and Kenji Mizoguchi (screenplay), Kenji Mizoguchi (director) 祇園の姉妹 Gion no Shimai (Sisters of the Gion) / 1936

Two sisters, Umekichi (Yōko Umemura) and Omocha (Isuza Yamada), working as geisha’s in the gritty Gion district of Kyoto, have opposing viewpoints of their roles in Japanese society. The elder Umekichi, educated in traditional Geisha manner to sacrifice all personal values to the pleasure of the males they serve, is willing to take in her former patron, Simbei Furusawa (Benkei Shiganoya) into her household with her sister, despite the fact that Furusawa—a former successful businessman who has suddenly become bankrupt—knowing that it will mean further deprivations. Given all the years of his support, she remains devoted to him, almost as might be his wife (perhaps even more so), committed by the traditional patterns inherent in the geisha tradition.

      The younger Omocha has no such outdate notions. Having been educated in the modern school system, and having taken up the geisha tradition merely in order to survive, she sees what she describes as the truth, that the men paying her and her sister for their pleasures, deserve to abandoned when they can no longer function as supporters. An amazing proto-feminist, particularly given the 1936 date of this film, Omocha uses men to obtain what she desires, flirting with them, lying, and twisting their lusts to fit her own needs and desires. When not in Geisha “costume” Omocha wears smart, modern clothing lure both the doting seniors with billfolds full of money and their younger assistants, who might, often illegally, provide her with her needs and desires.

     When her sister is offered an opportunity to dance as an important Geisha event—requiring the purchase of a quality kimono that the sisters cannot afford—Omocha flirts with a salesman, Kimura (Taizō Fukami) demanding he make her one of the finest materials and design. Although he attempts to resist her demands, she easily convinces him of her sexual interest and he willingly promises her the expensive kimono for her sister.

      Soon after, Omocha plots for the removal of the elderly Furusawa from their home, by negotiating with a another elderly, quite crooked businessman, Jurakudo (Fumio Okura), to become her mother’s patron, and, soon after, suggests to the failed elder of their household that he is no longer wanted, offering him a substantial amount of money (received from Jurakudo) for him to return to his wife.

     Almost simultaneously Omocha finds herself a new patron after businessman Kudo (Eitarō Shindō) discovers that he has been cheated by his head salesmen, Kimura. Visiting the Giron in order to evaluate and dismiss Kimura’s obsession, he himself is overwhelmed by Omocha’s attentions, and determines to take her under his own patronage.

      What becomes apparent in all these behind-the-door negotiations is just how paternalistic and patronizing the whole of the male-dominated society truly is. Yet, we also see how horribly cynical and perverse Omocha is in her successful transactions for love.

       Approached by Jurakudo, the elder sister is still confused by his sudden offering of patronage, and when, quite by accident, the almost idiotic Kimura—arguably the clueless villain of the entire film—stumbles in upon the situation, revealing that he has just seen Furusawa, still in Kyoto, now living with his ex-salesman.

       Hearing of Furusawa’s situation, Umekichi rushes off to see him, leaving the speechless Jurakudo aside. Discovering that her sister has created this situation, Umekichi determines to move in with Furusawa, removing all her possessions from her former residence.

       In an odd way, Mizoguchi’s dark film is a tale of the elderly, women and men beyond their prime seeking love and survival in the only way they know how—grabbing on and holding to anyone who might possibly offer them the semblance of what they might have once imagined was love. We can hardly imagine that any of the major figures—except the beautiful Omocha—might be truly involved in sex acts; rather, what they all seek is the niceties of what they might remember from their youth, the polite offerings of food and drink, the gentle ministrations of caring and consolation. The relationship between Furusawa and Umekichi is not at all about sex, but chimes out their remembrances of years of bedtime caresses and kisses. There is utterly no reason why the sexually active Omocha should at all comprehend the seemingly perverse desires of these elderly men and truly commit herself to their death-life caresses. She uses them, without realizing that there are even more dangers in not committing than there are to her greedy acceptance of these temporary sexual infatuations.

       If the elder generation might be willing to forgive the dissolution of love, the younger generation, encapsulated in the vengeful and blind Kimura—who wants merely what he has paid for—has no such capabilities. Calling Kudo’s wife to report on his boss’s sinful behavior, Kimura moves in on Omocha, luring her into a taxi ride from which he violently expels her, perhaps crippling her for life.

      Upon hearing of her sister’s condition, the loving Umekichi rushes to her hospital beside, only to discover when returning to Furusawa to reclaim her belongings that even he has left her, returning to this wife and a new position she has obviously acquired for him.

       Both sisters, one suffering the results of her sexual machinations, the other having to face the failure of her own commitment to her Geisha ideals, are left alone, without financial support and with no ability—one now elderly, the other perhaps without even the use of her limbs—to support themselves. Omocha’s bitter damnation of the whole world in which they have been forced to involve themselves makes it clear that, no matter which position one might take in the Japanese society of the day—commitment to or manipulation of that imprisoning acceptance of the society’s quiet embracement of prostitution—the women are forced to suffer its destructive structures..   

Los Angeles, August 22, 20915

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