English Title: A Geisha
Original Title: Gion bayashi
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
based on Matstarô Kawaguchi’s novel
Music: Ichirô Saitô
Cinematography: Kazuo Miyagawa
A GEISHA is Miyagawa’s late stage threnody with regard to those he has been steadily paying commiserations through his formidable cannon, namely, ordinary lives on the low-rung.
The English title may misguide audience by implying a young geisha’s Bildungsroman in the Post-WWII Japan, that is quite right, but it only constitutes half of the story. In the beginning we are introduced to a 16-year-old Eiko (Wakao), arrives in Kyoto’s Gion district and entreats named geisha Miyoharu (Kogure) to take her in as an apprentice. Eiko is saddled with her own tale of woe, his mother, a formal geisha and Miyoharu’s friend, died young, her father Sawamoto (Shindô), a businessman on his irretrievable downturn, doesn’t want anything to do with her. So being a geisha is her only outlet in this callous world and she takes great pride in this line-of-work, which is referred as “living works of art, intangible cultural assets” by her trainer, and resolves to not let anything cripple her work ethic, which means she will do best to please her patrons but will not be foisted into prostitution. She knows nothing about the delicate sex politics of the demimonde, so we need another character to tread into the underbelly.
Miyoharu, who gives us a first impression of materialistic and impassive when she rebuffs a client who cannot afford her service (for three months indeed), lends herself on a mother-sister figure towards the young and imprudent Eiko, and through her tactful mediation and altruistic deeds, she manages to give Eiko a decent debut merely after one-year of training, and immediately Eiko gets the attention of the district’s biggest patron Kusuda (Kawazu), who is habitually prefers new blood, whereas Kanzaki (Koshiba), Kusuda’s young business associate, has a different taste in women, and takes a liking to Miyoharu.
Only if both Eiko and Miyoharu would settle for these unsavory but finance-secured arrangements, there would be no kerfuffle ensuing. What happens next is inevitable when Eiko violently offends Kusuda’s advances and puts their livelihood in jeopardy. Some ruffled feathers must be smoothed, and Sawamoto’s gnarly advent to solicit money rubs salt into their affliction, what alternative do they have? The ending will have its say, as profound as it is poignant. What ultimately striking a chord in A GEISHA is Mizoguchi’s deeply affectionate manifesto of the strength between two women, they are not consanguineous, yet, their rapport is so transcendentally dignified and soul-stirring because sometimes life could be hell but that shouldn’t be the end of it, no despair needed when we can hold each other’s hands and solider on.
Scale-wise, A GEISHA is on the lightweight end in Mizoguchi’s yardstick, but nonetheless peppered with compositional circumspection (e.g. the fixed angle from curtains) and gifted with superlative emotional repercussions predicated on a string of prominent performances: Michiyo Kogure is beguilingly versatile which sounds like a lesser statement, checking the scenes where she wonderfully lets on courtesy, empathy, scorn and compassion alternatively when facing off an equally competent Eitarô Shindô as the grasping, repugnant Sawamoto, that is some fine acting chops; a callow Ayako Wakao is also well-attuned to Eiko’s characteristics, not a soft touch as she appears and lastly, a shout-out to Chieko Naniwa, who inhabits herself so naturally as Madame Okimi, a woman who can commandeer the whole district on her say-so on top of her ever-pleasant-and-earnest camouflage. A GEISHA is after all, one of Mizoguchi’s best and rightly deserves the garland.
referential points: Rob Marshall’s MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA (2005, 8.0/10); Mizoguchi ’s THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUMS (1939, 6.3/10), SANSHO THE BAILIFF (1954, 7.4/10).