Sisters of the Gion (1936)

12 02 2008

Playing off a similar setup in Gion Bayashi, which came much later, Sisters of the Gion tells the story of two geisha sisters, Umekichi and Omocha. The more experienced Umekichi sees it as her responsibility to house her customer, Furusawa, who recently was abandoned by his wife. The younger Omocha is angered by this: she feels that Umekichi is being exploited by Furusawa. A quote early in the film explains her view of the men she “works” with: “Everyman that comes in here wants to take advantage of you.” Umekichi goes against her best judgment, and allows Furusawa into her life while Omocha schemes a way to get rid of him.

Another wonderful entry in Mizoguchi’s social drama category. Great in it’s observations but also oozing with technical wizardry. Shots indoors are filled very straightforward, occasionally featuring very, very long static compositions. When a character leads, we follow him/her through the chaotic and lively streets via tracking shots. The camera moves in such a fluid manner that the film not only obtains a documentary feel (the condition of the print helps) but also reminds one of Alan Clarke’s films of the 1980s. In other words, Mizoguchi is really breaking a lot of new ground here.

On the other end of the spectrum, this doesn’t really come close to the emotional height of Chikamatsu Monogatari. In that film, Mizoguchi took many narrative risks but it all ends up working. Even though the government may not have been in favor of a film exposing certain class conditions, it feels a bit too familiar at this point. This isn’t to say the story is not engaging but it’s more an objective, yet convincing look into the lives of two geisha sisters. There is nothing wrong with simple drama like this that on the surface “go nowhere”- in fact, many of my very favorite films fall into this category. However, a film like Humanity and Paper Balloons takes the time to allow us to understand the characters. At a running time of only 69 minutes, Sisters of the Gion does not.

In the film’s defense, IMDB says the original running time 95 minutes, which means my VHS copy probably left a lot out and not to mention, the quality does prevent you from seeing anyone’s face. Considering what Mizoguchi was intending to do aesthetically speaking and the time when he made it, this is pretty much a perfect film. I hate to go back to the camera work, but the way he shoots dialogue scenes is simply so great. It’s pretty much done in the same way as a Hou Hsiao-Hsien film, but maybe even further away from the character. Complimented by the perceptive writing and wonderful performances, the film gains an almost surveillance type of mood. Mizoguchi does hard towards the end to switch to a more conventional style: it almost turns into some film-noir melodrama. Thankfully, the rest of the film is perfectly suited to my taste. Score another masterpiece for Mizoguchi.

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One response

15 02 2008
Michael Kerpan

JMDB also says the film was originally 95 minutes. All available versions today seem to be 69 minutes. I’ve never seen any explanation for the discrepancy.

One of my favorite Mizo films, even if it does have a few lapses here and there.

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