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Sisters of the Gion (1936): Mizoguchi’s Excellent ‘Feminist’ Melodrama

Sisters of the Gion Isuzu YamadaSisters of the Gion with Isuzu Yamada. With nearly 180 big-screen credits in a career spanning more than five decades, Yamada is best remembered for her portrayal of Lady Asaji Washizu in Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 Macbeth-inspired classic Throne of Blood.
  • Sisters of the Gion (1936) movie review: The story of two disparate geisha sisters – older/younger, traditional/”modern,” loyal/distrustful – in pre-World War II Japan, Kenji Mizoguchi’s socially conscious melodrama is a memorable “feminist” effort.

Sisters of the Gion movie review: Kenji Mizoguchi’s fine melodrama focuses on the clashes between personal goals & business practices

Profitability is the ultimate aim of corporate transactions. However impersonal, such commercial exchanges are necessary for survival. Success, no matter the strategy or plan, can be propelled or hindered by fate, albeit this variable holds no intrinsic emotional consequences.

Of course, companies are not breathing, feeling entities. Yet humans are behind these enterprises; and with or without these inanimate extensions, they also pursue financial success. Such pursuits, for their part, do entail emotional risks even though individuals are innately driven to seek personal security.

When the drive for financial and/or personal peace of mind exceeds necessity and becomes a quest for reward, the lines connecting transactions of commerce and those of the heart swiftly diverge.

This “emotional economy” is a primary concern in director/co-writer Kenji Mizoguchi’s excellent 1936 melodrama Sisters of the Gion / Gion no shimai, the tale of two geishas in Kyoto’s “pleasure district.”

Pre-WWII Japan time capsule

As is often the case with cinematic siblings, the two women in Sisters of the Gion are in most ways opposite.

Umekichi (Yoko Umemura) is older, more bound to her convictions, and an adherent to tradition. O-Mocha (Isuzu Yamada) is younger and more contemporary, though still constrained by the social code that dominates the geisha sphere in 1930s Gion.

O-Mocha, for instance, has little use for Umekichi’s newly destitute patron Furusawa (Benkei Shiganoya). When the older sister extends help to the pitiful benefactor, O-Mocha conspires to remove him and establish in his place the more financially secure Jurakudo (Fumio Ôkura).

Thus Mizoguchi and co-screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda – adapting segments from Aleksandr Kuprin’s three-part novel The Pit – unfold the narrative as a series of transactions that depict not only geisha women as commodities trapped by circumstance but also the conflict between traditional and 20th-century mores in Japan immediately before World War II.

These themes are familiar in the filmmaker’s oeuvre, but in Sisters of the Gion they are exquisitely and profoundly intertwined.

Commodity market impositions

As the film begins, we see the sisters enjoying a modest livelihood. Struggles exist and fates are unclear, but a relative stability is suggested. This “economy of tradition” is mourned in Sisters of the Gion, yet Mizoguchi also winces at it; the geisha world is stripped of its allure to reveal an enterprise with humanity as its commodity and individuals confined by its order.

Umekichi quietly searches for financial security – with love as a byproduct – but in her adherence to convention she is undone by the economic transitions of the world around her. For a geisha, passion is perhaps a reward that the life as a “business enterprise” cannot allow. (Admittedly, the movie questions whether Umekichi could have found “pure love” even without the subtle social upheavals.)

Likewise, as O-Mocha reaches beyond tradition to embrace a modern, shrewd profit-making strategy, her attempt eventually fails. Emotional necessities interfere and handicap.

The sisters of the Gion are thus unable to work within shifting dynamics, as the marketplace of which they’re a part hampers emotional transactions. As commodities without a say in their own lives, they’re governed by the market rules imposed on them.

Sisters of the Gion Isuzu Yamada Fumio ÔkuraSisters of the Gion with Isuzu Yamada and Fumio Ôkura. Another 1936 Kenji Mizoguchi release, Osaka Elegy, also starred Yamada and her older sister of the Gion, Yoko Umemura.

Masterful directorial touch

What thematically seems heavy-handed and cruel is softened – but not diluted – by Kenji Mizoguchi’s compellingly melodramatic approach. His ideas wrapped in a romantic story of survival, he underscores them from the first images onward.

Sisters of the Gion opens with an extended shot of Furusawa’s belongings sold at auction. As the camera traverses rooms of varying sizes and (dis)order, it immediately establishes the idea of life as commodity while gracefully conveying shifting cultural and social norms.

The sequence is a classic in structure and composition, an enticement for the viewer to step further into this world.

‘Feminist’ filmmaking

During the course of the film, the action is kept in tight, confined quarters that threaten to choke their inhabitants. Nevertheless, soft touches are always added, even if the final composition expresses something grimmer.

The balance is often found in his actors’ sympathetic portrayals, particularly in Isuzu Yamada’s performance. O-Mocha is selfish and conniving, but the director and the actress humanize her through a display of sad confusion. Besides, the younger sister isn’t the one who must carry the burden of blame.

In Sisters of the Gion, the roles of Japanese women in the 1930s is closely tied to the presiding economic forces. In focusing upon geisha women as commodities for profit, Kenji Mizoguchi extends his subtle indictment into the social sphere while, as usual, resolutely siding with his female characters.

Sisters of the Gion / Gion no shimai (1936)

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi.

Screenplay: Kenji Mizoguchi & Yoshikata Yoda.
From Aleksandr Kuprin’s novel The Pit (published in three parts: 1909, 1914, 1915).

Cast: Isuzu Yamada. Yoko Umemura. Benkei Shiganoya. Taizô Fukami. Eitarô Shindô. Fumio Ôkura. Sakurako Iwama.

Sisters of the Gion (1936): Mizoguchi’s Excellent ‘Feminist’ Melodrama” review text © Doug Johnson; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.


Sisters of the Gion (1936) Movie Review” endnotes

Fumio Ôkura and Isuzu Yamada Sisters of the Gion images: Daiichi Eiga | The Criterion Collection.

Sisters of the Gion (1936): Mizoguchi’s Excellent ‘Feminist’ Melodrama” last updated in October 2021.

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