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”.

The Flavor Of Green Tea Over Rice [Ochazuke no aji] (1952)

He Supports You, He Provides For You And Darling You Can’t Support Yourself

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The practice of arranged marriage was bizarre to the west come the 20th century however according to the website FactsAndDetails.com; “[Japan] In the 1950s, about 70 percent of all marriages were arranged. In 1973, the figure was only 37 percent. Today only around 10 percent are”. The Flavour Of Green Tea Over Rice (or “Flavor” as you yanks spell it) is one of several domestic sagas by director Yasujirō Ozu which focuses on arranged marriages, and it’s fascinating to see how such an arcane practice was still commonplace in a world which is otherwise very westernised. However, like Late Spring and Early Summer, the focus on arranged marriage doesn’t detract from the universality of these films nor do I get any impression Ozu is attacking the practice in any of his pictures. In The Flavour Of Green Tea Over Rice, the young girl Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima) outright refuses to partake in an arranged marriage however come the film’s conclusion, the story’s main couple Taeko & Mokichi Satake (Michiyo Kogure and Shin Saburi) do find happiness within their arranged marriage. The Flavour Of Green Tea Over Rice holds similar plot threads to Ozu’s earlier comedy What Did The Lady Forget? – both of which feature a childless, married couple and a rebellious niece named Setsuko.

Taeko Satake very much fits the mould of a wine aunt – a woman of privilege who is unemployed, childless and is able to live a rather luxurious life (symbolized from her preferred attire of kimono) from living off her husband as well as receiving money from her upper-middle-class parents. The film doesn’t indicate if the relationship between Taeko and her husband Mokichi was ever strong. She is only seen acting like a loving wife in the lead up to lying to her husband in order to go to the hot springs with her friends for the night, nor does he make any effort to confront these obvious lies. Upon first watching the film I wasn’t quite sure if Mokichi just accepted these lies and did nothing about it or was just thick. Taeko even calls her husband Mr. Bonehead when he’s not around and compares him to a big, sluggish carp on one occasion. Likewise, there is the hypocrisy of her refusing to speak to her husband for days on end after he lied to her even though she has previously lied to him on many occasions – ah women, amirite? I know I’m going quite hard on this character, but I by no means dislike her. Prior to the film’s conclusion, her character does receive some redemption in being a doting and caring aunt to Setsuko (of whom it’s somewhat odd that the young girl spends the entire movie hanging out with older women), plus I couldn’t bring myself to dislike the ever-gorgeous Michiyo Kogure. Despite collaborating with many actors on multiple occasions, The Falvour Of Green Tea Over Rice would be Michiyo Kogure’s only film with Ozu.

The other point of contention amidst Mr. & Mrs. Satake is the class difference between the two, with Mokchi coming from a more working-class background. This conflict becomes most pronounced when Taeko chastises her husband over his primitive manner of eating, “wolfing his food down like a dog” as she describes it. This class difference ties into the meaning behind the film’s title. Mokchi is a man who derives simple pleasures from life much to his wife’s displeasure. In a monologue, he speaks of how he likes things “cosy and down-to-earth” and “without ceremony or affectation” (which in itself is a perfect description of Ozu as a filmmaker). The pharse “flavour of green tea over rice” is a capitulation to the simple life with green tea over rice itself being a simple delicacy. What would be the western equivalent – the flavour of bread over butter? The other husband featured in The Flavour Of Green Tea Over Rice is that of Toichiro (Hisao Toake), the husband of Aya (Chikage Awashima). The awkward and cucked little man is spotted having an affair with another woman at a baseball game (despite the claim that he doesn’t like baseball very much) and even comes to his wife’s place of work in order to ask her for money (it’s not indicated if he actually works himself). Aya herself has a job of some prestige, appearing to be a clothes designer and it’s clear who wears the pants in this couple. Men, be more like Mokichi and don’t in any way emulate the pathetic Toichiro. Mokchi may not be the most exciting man in the world but he is a reliable husband ala green tea over rice. As Taeko states at the film’s conclusion – “What’s most important is whether he’s reliable or not”.

Taeko and Mokichi’s marriage is ultimately saved by what else, the making a late-night snack. After Taeko had to leave the country for Uruguay and was unable to say goodbye to his wife as she had unexpectedly left for a few days, the two then find themselves reunited at home when Taeko’s plane has to return due to mechanical troubles. In one of the most beautiful scenes in an Ozu film, the pair must find their way around the kitchen as their servant Fumi (Yôko Kosono) has gone to bed and they have never prepared food for themselves. The couple display a look of pure joy on their faces while they prepare a snack of (you guessed it) green tea over rice as the two fall-in-love with each other and Mokichi’s comes to understand Taeko’s philosophy of “cosy and down-to-earth”. The scene is not in any way unbelievable or contrived and demonstrates there still lies hope for damaged marriages and relationships. Their kitchen itself is pure interior decorating goals with its slight Bauhaus vibe and one which is illuminated with a beautiful, dark and hazy light. The final shot of the kitchen lingers as the couple leaves the room and turns off the lights, letting the viewer absorb the pure cinematic magic which just unfolded. Previously, I would have ranked the best ever scene in a movie centered around a kitchen to have been the comical climax in Woman Of The Year (1942), which can now hold the number 2 position of such an honour. 

Another interesting point of note is Aya’s question to Setsuko as to whether she prefers the upper or lower part of actor Jean Marais’ face after Setsuko speaks of going to see one of his pictures. The same reference was made in Late Spring to a Japanese man having the same facial features as Gary Cooper on the lower part of his face, with the significance being the upper part of the face being what most significantly distinguishes asians from caucasians. Conversely, in a slightly odd change of pace for an Ozu film, the camera moves with a total of 7 pans throughout the film – rare for Ozu considering his aversion to camera movement. This however does not include camera shots stationed on moving vehicles unless that in itself can be classified as a moving shot? Correspondingly, like other Ozu films, the film provides some documentary-like moments of post-war Japan such as shots of a baseball game as-well-as a cycling race in a purpose-built stadium. Also featured is a pachinko parlour, a coin-operated game and a predecessor to the modern-day coin-operated arcade game. The owner of the parlour known as the Bittersweet School Of Life, Sadao Hirayama (Chishū Ryū) thinks the addictive game is a bad trend that will die out, only history would go on to prove him very wrong. – Ah the nostalgia one can experience for a world never lived in.

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.