Business is contingent upon profitable commercial transactions. Exchanges that removed from human instigation are cold but necessary for survival. Success, no matter strategy or plan, is propelled or hindered by fate, though this variable holds no emotional consequence. Of course, companies are usually created to make money and are not breathing, feeling entities. Yet humans are behind these enterprises, and with or without this extension also pursue financial success – but those entail emotional risks.
Individuals are likewise driven to establish personal security and this basic idea is a primary concern of Kenji Mizoguchi’s excellent 1936 melodrama Sisters of the Gion. However, when that drive overwhelms necessity and becomes a quest for reward, the parallel between transactions of commerce and those of the heart swiftly diverge. Mizoguchi chronicles this emotional economy in his tale of two geisha sisters.
As is often the case with cinematic siblings, the two women are in most ways opposite. Umekichi (Yôko Umemura) is older, more bound to her convictions and adherent to tradition. O-Mocha (Isuza Yamada) is younger and contemporary, though still constrained by the code that dominates the geisha sphere of Gion (a section of Kyoto) in the 1930s. She has little use for Umekichi’s patron Furusawa (Benkei Shiganoya), a man newly destitute. When the older sister extends help to the pitiful benefactor, O-Mocha conspires to remove him and establish the more financially secure Jurakudo (Fumio Okura) as patron.
Mizoguchi unfolds the narrative as a series of transactions that depict not only geisha women as commodities trapped in circumstance, but also the conflict between traditional and contemporary mores in Japan immediately before World War II. These themes are familiar in the director’s oeuvre, but here they are quite exquisitely and profoundly intertwined.
The sisters enjoy a modest and small-scale life as Sisters of the Gion begins. Struggles exist and fates are unclear, but Mizoguchi suggests relative certainty. This economy of tradition is mourned in the film, yet, the filmmaker also winces at it; the geisha world is stripped of magic to reveal an enterprise with humanity as its commodity and individuals confined by its order.
Umekichi quietly searches for financial stability, with love as a by-product. In her adherence to convention, she is undone by the economic transitions of the world around her. (Mizoguchi questions if the older sister could find pure love even without the subtle upheaval.) For a geisha, endearing passion is perhaps a reward that the life as business enterprise cannot allow.
Likewise, as O-Mocha reaches beyond tradition to embrace a shrewd, modern strategy for profit, her attempt fails. Emotional necessities interfere and handicap. The sisters are unable to work within shifting dynamics; Mizoguchi makes it clear that this marketplace confuses the emotional transactions contained within. The Sisters of the Gion remain commodities without a say in their own lives; they are rather governed by the market rules imposed on them.
What seems heavy-handed and cruel thematically is softened (but not diluted) by Mizoguchi’s compellingly melodramatic approach. His ideas wrapped in a romantic story of survival, the filmmaker underscores them from the first images onward. Opening Sisters with an extended shot of Furusawa’s belongings sold at auction, traversing rooms of varying sizes and (dis)order, Mizoguchi immediately establishes the idea of life as commodity while gracefully conveying shifting cultural and social norms. That sequence is classic in structure and composition, an enticement for the viewer to step further into this world.
Throughout the film, action is kept in confined, tight quarters that threaten to choke their inhabitants. Mizoguchi always retains soft touches, however, even if the composition expresses something grimmer. The balance is often found in the sympathetic portrayals of his actors, particularly in Isuza Yamada’s performance; her character is conniving and selfish, but the actress and director humanize her with a display of sad confusion.
In Sisters of the Gion, the look into the roles of Japanese women of the 1930s is tied closely with presiding economic forces. In focusing upon geisha women as commodities for profit, however, the filmmaker extends his subtle indictment into the social sphere. Kenji Mizoguchi sides resolutely with the sisters as he often does with his female characters. Once again, he predicts feminist attitudes that would become more pronounced in film decades later.
© Doug Johnson
Gion no shimai / Sisters of the Gion (1936). Director: Kenji Mizoguchi. Screenplay: Kenji Mizoguchi and Yoshikata Yoda; from Aleksandr Kuprin’s novel. Cast: Isuzu Yamada, Yôko Umemura, Benkei Shiganoya, Fumio Okura