Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sisters of the Gion

Released in the same year as Osaka Elegy, Sisters of the Gion presents itself as a companion piece to Kenji Mizoguchi's breakthrough through simple proximity. But the parallels run far deeper: Sisters consolidates the inconsistencies in its predecessor's style, retaining its Art Deco reflective lighting as the director perfects his camera placement and movement. As precise as the narrative and imagery were in Osaka, they become even sharper in the Gion district of Kyoto.

The story itself practically builds off the end of Osaka Elegy. That film closed with a shot of its protagonist, played by Isuzu Yamada, walking toward the camera with steely resolve. In Gion Yamada plays Omocha, a geisha who might easily be Ayako a few years past her ostracism in Osaka. Where Ayako fought against the oppression in the family unit that hobbled her, Omocha has moved far beyond those confines, only to find herself in the larger cage of Japan's hegemonic society.

Gion opens, as its predecessor did, not on Omocha or her older sister, fellow geisha Umekichi, but on a man. Well, not quite; technically, the film begins in a storeroom filled with antiques being sold off as the camera tracks and pans into the next room where the auction to buy the items in the first room is underway. Mizoguchi continues to track and turn until fading into the next shot via composites to finally settle upon the bankrupt businessman, Furusawa, and his male assistant. Just as the beginning of Osaka Elegy conveyed the film's theme and style, so too does Gion's first shot(s) lay the foundation of what's to come: Mizoguchi tracks through separate rooms, but he moves outside the doorways, not through them. Thus, the unbroken movement of his camera (until the dissolve) is contrasted with the constant fracturing of the mise-en-scène as he passes over each partition. As the camera settles upon Furusawa, bemoaning his poor financial decisions, Mizoguchi immediately reestablishes the split in power between genders as he frames Furusawa and the assistant alone before panning to show Furusawa's wife in the next room, pacing nervously as she deals with her husband's failure but cannot do so directly. At last she snaps and throws the lout from the home -- wives in Mizoguchi's world seem to have just enough power to shame their spouses once, though the effect is only temporary -- and Furusawa stumbles to the geisha where we meet our heroines.

The doubled leads allow Mizoguchi to frame Sisters of the Gion as a dialectic. Umekichci, raised from childhood to be a geisha, adheres to the traditions of the role: always dressed in proper kimonos, she entertains only one patron at a time and submits to their requests without hesitation. Omocha, on the other hand, sees through the elaborate staging of the geisha, seeing only a trumped-up prostitute. She knows that no real connection between client and geisha forms, that the man uses the woman and practically discards her along with the contraceptive. “Men come here and pay money to make playthings out of us," she states defiantly. "If you keep living this way, you’ll always feel as if you’re being strangled to death.” Dressed regularly in Western clothing, Omocha uses her seductive skills to manipulate multiple clients, extracting from them as further compensation for taking from her. Where Ayako attempted to break the bonds that she only just realized held her, Omocha knows the bars that bind her and bends them as she can to test their tensile strength.

Naturally, the sisters represent the cultural schism in prewar Japan -- it would of course be suppressed in the nationalist furor of the war -- between traditionalism and Westernization. Umekichi believes in the old ways and treats her patrons almost like husbands, while the public-schooled Omocha carries downright radical ideas of self-worth and independence. It is odd and wonderful to see Omocha's outrage played as progressive instead of shrill and bitter, more so that her role as the seductress feels empowering instead of stereotypical. Interestingly, for all the bile she spews on her Umekichi regressive views, Omocha primarily uses her wiles in an attempt to benefit her sister. When she challenges Umekichi's decision to let Furusawa stay with them by asking, "Why should we be comforting him? We can barely take care of ourselves," the rage in her voice belies her concern for the siblings' own financial straits; with Furusawa leeching off the already strapped pair, Umekichi will send them into bankruptcy along with her client. Later, Omocha charms the clerk of a kimono shop into giving her a dress made of expensive material for her sister.

The power these geisha can exert over men is simply comical. Umekichi meets one of Furusawa's friends, Jurakudo, and the rigid formalization of Mizoguchi's direction highlights the way that Umekichi, even as the submissive one, calls attention to herself: she enters the crowded room, instantly drawing the eye to her as she walks while everyone else sits, yet Mizoguchi maintains the focus of the shot entirely upon her after she kneels through lighting and the blocking of the other actors, all looking to a side or away from the camera so that Umekichi is the only person looking toward the audience. Her move from the top left in a down-right direction suggests ominous things to come, yet by stopping in the middle of the frame, she demonstrates that she still holds a certain power, whether she exercises it or not.

Omocha of course holds even more sway, as she understands her abilities and uses them. She seduces older, wealthier men by playing into their socially ingrained sense of superiority, assuring them that she prefers the experience and wisdom of elders to the rash ignorance of youth. "Young men are no good," the client agrees. "They haven't suffered." The irony of this man, who has likely never known anything in the league of true suffering, making such a statement in the presence of a woman, is so staggering that one almost commends Mizoguchi for not leaping out from behind his camera and throttling the fool, if it's all make-believe. When Jurakudo collects a payment from a client who owes him money, Omocha stands to the side, tacitly encouraging the merchant to get more money from the debtor which he can then lavish upon her. Hilariously, Mizoguchi uses some of his few close-ups in this single scene, cutting to Omocha's encouraging face as the frame tightens in a slight haze around the edges -- it's too pronounced to be a matter of focus, yet too crystalline to be print damage -- as if the geisha was exerting some form of hypnotic control on the man, a Dr. Mabuse in silk and clogs.

Elsewhere, Mizoguchi's direction is just as stellar. The partitions in the opening shot predict the ubiquitous uses of frames, walls and doors to separate characters physically, a reflection of their emotional isolation. Often, one character sits in the foreground while another figures into the background (seen in deep focus, of course), and Mizoguchi simultaneously highlights the distance between them as he shrinks that space by segmenting the foreground from the background via a door frame. The space no longer seems so large, but it's compartmentalized and segregated, even more remote that it would have been if simply one big room. Subtly canted angles heighten this disconnect, though the director also wrings some comedy out of them when he uses a more exaggerated angle as Umekichi leads the drunken Jurakudo back to her place to see Furusawa, emphasizing the man's tipsiness. Set against terrifying moments like the tense, claustrophobic shot/reverse shot exchange inside a car between Omocha and the kimono clerk she inadvertently got fired -- the man who seemed most innocent and lovestruck ultimately revealed to be the most sadistic -- the wry humor is even more incisive and the lighter moments welcome moments to catch one's breath.

The incident in the car puts Omocha in the hospital with severe injuries, and Umekichi, freshly dumped by Furusawa after he secured another job and reconciled with his wife, returns to her sister to care for her (thus repaying the favors she never consciously noted). Umekichi accepts Omocha's fate as proof that the more progressive sister should have been more reserved after all, but Omocha's resolve only hardens. "Something like this won't make me give in to men." The characters move behind a slotted wall, vaguely visible as the camera stays behind but still obscured, and Omocha's rants become even more powerful and thunderous in their disembodiment. But then, her resolve crumbles. "If we do our jobs well," she cries, "they call us immoral. So what can we do?" We saw Yamada link two characters into one evolution, from submissive, giri-influenced daughter to liberated streetwalker to feminist geisha, but now Omocha sees that the bars she bent will never break. It doesn't matter whether, like Umekichi, a woman submits or, like Omocha, a woman rebels: there is simply no escape. It's a horrifying prospect that reduces Omocha's defiance to tear-streaked despair, wracking her body and mind until this once-proud woman can only sob a damning rhetorical question aimed squarely at its contemporary Japanese audience: "Why do there even have to be such things as geisha?"

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