A Geisha [Gion bayashi] (1953)

Memoirs Of A Geisha

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The world of the geisha is one of lies, a world in which they are selling a fantasy. As Miyoharu (Michiyo Kogure) states in the film’s opening, “A geisha’s lie is not a real lie. It’s a cornerstone of our profession” – this foreshadows what is to come in Kenji Mizoguchi’s Gion Bayashi (aka A Geisha or literally translated to Gion Music Festival) – the definitive treatment on geisha life in early post-war Japan and one of the most insightful cinematic representations of Japan’s iconic female performers (although I would call the 1962 American film My Geisha my favourite film on the profession, albeit a more comical and light-hearted take). A Geisha is an economic film at only 85 minutes long and entirely set within the confines of the Gion (only leaving for one scene set in a Tokyo apartment). The film is full of Mizoguchi’s favoured use of long, uncut takes and even channels of his inner Ozu with a number of shots reminiscent of that other great Japanese filmmaker. However, no geisha in the film are seen wearing the iconic white face makeup but we do see the makeup applied to the shoulders and neck. Is this absence of face makeup due to the black & white cinematography? Although considering the colourful nature of the geisha’s kimonos, that alone could be reason alone for A Geisha to be one film which could have benefited from colour cinematography.

Considered a loose remake of Mizoguchi’s earlier film Sisters Of The Gion, both chronicle a pair of geishas living under the same roof and encountering difficult personal circumstances. In both films, the pair share a sister relationship (with the pair in the earlier film being actual blood sisters) in which the older geisha is more traditional and the younger less so, of whom ends up rebelling against the system. Otherwise, the stories of both films go their own way, with the two women in A Geisha struggling to refuse the sexual advances of men in order to survive. This raises the question – are geisha prostitutes or have they ever been? The official answer is no. However when researching how often in the past have geisha engaged in sexual acts and have there ever been periods in which they were expected to, albeit, via unwritten rules as seen in A Geisha, I can’t find a clear answer. In one of the pivotal scenes in A Geisha, Eiko, the young trainee geisha (or maiko) is being informed about the rights granted to her under MacArthur’s constitution by the mother of the geisha house, Okimi (Chieko Naniwa). Eiko asks whether it is an infringement on her rights for a client to force himself upon her of which Okimi tries to sidestep the question and eventfully gives the reluctant answer of “in principle, yes”. The answer however is clearly the opposite and this culture of corruption is enabled by the mother of the house in which these women have to engage on the geisha casting couch in order to get ahead. Is A Geisha an accurate depiction of the profession in the early 1950s and thus did it have any impact? A Geisha can also be considered part of a late-career trilogy of the films by Mizoguchi focusing on prostitution including Woman In The Rumor and Street Of Shame.

Eiko is a post-war child, she is a Frank Serpico-like figure, determined to follow a righteous path. Eiko lives under the same roof as the older and less rebellious geisha Miyoharu (Michiyo Kogure), of whom the generational gap between the two is apparent while Eiko’s hardness serves as a counterpoint to the more delicate nature of Miyoharu. The terribly underrated Michiyo Kogure radiates elegance and has such a gentle nature to her as well as the ability to express vulnerability in her body language as the older of the two geisha (Kogure is sadly all but forgotten now with only a handful of her films being available in the west). Miyoharu and Eiko are the only two figures of dignity and virtue in a film full of morally defunct individuals including men who aren’t afraid to assault women, an uncle who demands Eiko sleep with him, Eiko’s deadbeat father and the aforementioned mother of the geisha house. Furthermore, the relationship between the two women is one of the film’s most fascinating aspects. There is much affection between the duo to the point in which Miyoharu becomes a mother figure to Eiko as she comes to symbolise Miyoharu’s own lost youth and innocence, about which she becomes increasingly protective. This is reflected in her clear apprehension and agitation at the prospect of Eiko actually sleeping with a client and although ambiguous, there are suggestions that Miyoharu is attracted to Eiko. Miyoharu is shown to have an aversion toward physical contact with any of the men in the film nor does she have a patron despite being a geisha for a number of years. In the final scene, it’s evident that Miyoharu’s feelings towards Eiko go beyond maternal feelings and she even offers to become Eiko’s patron, of which it is declared earlier in the film that a geisha’s patron is also her lover. In the end, it’s a matter of interpretation whether the relationship was homosexual or a platonic love.

The most pivotal scene in A Geisha is that set in a Tokyo apartment, in which Eiko resists the advances of the man Kusuda (Seizaburo Kawazu) who attempts to rape her as she badly injures him in her resistance. The incident not only results in the two geisha becoming ostracized and unable to find work, they unwittingly become pawns regarding a deal worth 80 million yen between a business and the government. The only way for their career’s to be restored and have pre-existing debts paid off is for Miyoharu to sleep with a man (Kanji Koshiba) who has been offering to be her patron. Watching a woman getting prepared for a sexual act she is uncomfortable taking part in is not pleasant viewing, especially when the man himself unnervingly tells Miyoharu, “you just have to close your eyes. In exchange, I promise to guarantee your future”. From the film’s opening shot of Eiko navigating the maze of streets to find Miyoharu’s house, the Gion itself can be viewed as a metaphor for these women have no exit through this labyrinth – the film paints a picture of a life which feels like it isn’t far from indentured servitude. The young geisha trainees are told that they represent the beauty of Japan to foreigners and that they are “living works of art“, but as Miyoharu states in the beginning – “A geisha’s lie is not a real lie. It’s a cornerstone of our profession”.

Drunken Angel [Yoidore Tenshi] (1948)

Drain The Swamp

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Drunken Angel marks the beginning of Akira Kurosawa’s golden age in the first of the 16 film collaboration with Toshiro Mifune (6th out of a whopping 21 films with Takashi Shimura). Drunken Angel is a movie thick with atmosphere, set in a slum with worn out buildings in which a lone guitar player comes out at night overlooking a toxic bog (possibly created from a bomb crater) laden with prostitutes next to a medical practice – a metaphor for all that was rotten about life in the wake of Japan’s catastrophic wartime defeat. You can almost feel the heat and humidity come off the screen while during the film’s daytime scenes the city comes alive with the diegetic music echoing in the background. No city is mentioned by name but a sign in the background of one scene reads in English “Social Center Of Tokyo”.

The chemistry between Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura is electric – The chemistry between Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura is electric – watching the two interact in the film’s opening scene they could easily carry the entire picture by themselves. A very youthful, handsome and suave Mifune is Matsunaga, a big shot member of the Yakuza (although the word is never mentioned in the film). With athletic agility, cat-like moves and his fashion choices of striped shirts and zoot suits, I do get some George Raft vibes from his performance. He shares a fascinating relationship with the brash, ill-tempered but dedicated Dr Sanada (Shimura) as he attempts to cure him of tuberculosis. The two hesitantly develop mutual respect for each other (Matsunaga reminds Sanada of himself during his youth as he states at one point) despite their highly tumultuous, sometimes violent interactions. In Drunken Angel Kurosawa doesn’t want to glamorize the Yakuza, but rather expose them as a blight on Japanese society. 

Drunken Angel is a classic story of addiction, in which “just one more drink” turns into a night of binging as Matsunaga drinks himself to death. The fantasy dream sequence involving Matsunaga opening a coffin on the beach only to find himself inside feels like something from a silent horror movie and is even quite Bergman-esque. It also feels reminiscent of the scene in The Empire Strikes Back in which Luke Skywalker finds his own face within Darth Vader’s helmet. The climax of Drunken Angel on the other hand features the type of cinematic images that you never forget as a weak and ill Matsunaga tries to fight his boss Okada as the two are covered in paint and scrambling on the ground before Mutsunga is stabbed and collapses by a balcony – it feels reminiscent of the iconic endings in various Warner Bros gangster films. Had this been a Hollywood production I can easily see it being a vehicle for James Cagney and Pat O’Brien, with perhaps Bogart as Okada?

It’s fascinating to see how much western trends are embraced in Japan, something which is often surprise to newcomers of Japanese film (I do love the interior of the dance hall with the giant playing cards on the walls as well as the Bolero Club with its Iberian ascetics and music). Yet at its heart Drunken Angel remains a story of post-war Japan with its characters and setting being an allegory using illness and contamination as a metaphor for the state of the nation. Matsunaga can be seen as a symbol of the Japan of yesteryear, struggling to find relevance in this new world while Sanada is a broken Japan trying to forge ahead. Sanda’s assistant Miyo (Chieko Nakakita) refuses to let go of her gangster, ex-boyfriend who ruined her life – a Japan which is pinning for what has been lost. However it is the young schoolgirl (Yoshiko Kuga) of whom Dr Sanda cures of tuberculosis provides the film with an optimistic, wholesome ending -a sign of Japan yet to come.