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”.

Floating Weeds [Ukikusa] (1959)

Seaside Rendezvous

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

There is no other director who can make films quite as relaxing or serene than those of Yasujirō Ozu, emanating from a combination of factors, notably the absence of camera movement to his trademark use of pillow shots (two or three quiet compositions usually showing an architectural detail, a banner in the wind, a tree or the sky). Ozu is known for violating the traditional rules of visual composition such as disregarding both the 360-degree rule and matching eye-line shots while having props leap from one side of a set to another – certainly making me question that which I was taught at film school. Any scene in Floating Weeds (a remake of his own A Story of Floating Weeds from 1934) could be paused just to observe the background décor – I hate to use a cliché phrase, but every frame is a painting. Just look at the scene in the rainy street and the strategic placement of a red umbrella, incorporating the dimensions of the golden ratio. Completing the relaxing flavour of Floating Weeds is the washed-out colour cinematography, the sound of cicadas, the Nino Rota-like music score (which gives the film a European feel) as well as the fact that much of the film involves people lounging wearing kimono in a picture-postcard seaside town (likewise, take a sip of sake every time someone in a Japanese film asks for sake) – you won’t find any other films which are as cosy viewing than the works of Ozu.

At its heart, the premise of Floating Weeds is a lovely romantic, vaudevillian notion of a travelling acting troupe going from town to town. “Floating Weeds” is a Japanese term for itinerant actors and the film plays into the age-old perspective that actors are in the dregs of society and partake in an un-respectful profession (with much of the film’s comedy comes from the hornier actors of the troupe and their wed-locked female prospects). The opening scene establishes that the troupe have come via Okazaki, Kariya and Cape Chita and once played in the Big Kado Theatre in Osaka. It would appear they have been Spinal Tap-ed and fallen on hard times, now they are playing at a theatre in a small seaside town which the previous month had hosted a strip show (you can feel the loss of moral as they are forced to play to an increasingly empty house). The troupe’s stage productions themselves are intriguing to watch even if they’re devoid of full context.

There is no clear time period as to when Floating Weeds takes place. The town itself still uses telegrams from the local post office, there are no other technological references nor is there any mention of movies or TV being a competing force for the acting troupe. Conversely, I do notice one TV aerial appears in a single pillow shot (although the appearance of such could have been an incidental anachronism) and the character of Kiyoshi talks about going to study electronics at college. Regardless, this lack of a clear time period does give Floating Weeds a real timeless quality to it. Which ties into the question, where was Floating Weeds filmed? Where is this beautiful little Japanese seaside town (unlike the original which is set in an inland town)? Sources state the picture was filmed in Japan’s Kii peninsula, yet upon scouring the internet, I can’t find an exact location nor any information about this seaside town.

Komajuro Arashi (Ganjirô Nakamura) is the leader of the acting troupe, an actor from Osaka and a towering, world-weary, alpha figure of a man. Another notable difference from the original is the age difference between Komajuro and his love interest Sumiko (Machiko Kyō). The full nature of their relationship is not made clear but she is involved enough to be upset over the discovery that he is seeing his old flame Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura) of whom he had a son named Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi). As an act of revenge, she sends her friend and fellow actress Kayo (Ayako Wakao) to seduce Kiyoshi in an effortlessly sexy manner with that unforgettable flick of a pencil. The ending of Floating Weeds is just about perfect as Komajuro and Sumiko meet again after their spilt, where else, but that classic cinematic convention of a train station – one late at night to the sounds of birds in the classic will they/won’t they? scenario. It’s by no means a conventionally happy ending as these two are clearly a flawed couple in a flawed relationship. It’s too late in their lives for happiness and the best they can do is compromise and endure (is it just me or does the film imply Sumiko does sexual favours to others for the couple’s career advancement during the aforementioned scene on the rainy street?). Yet the scene leaves one with a warm feeling, albeit a bittersweet one as the two share a bottle of sake in a railcar as the train disappears into the night to a romantic musical cue.