Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sisters of the Gion (Gion No Shimai, 1936) was made directly after his Osaka Elegy (Naniwa Erejî, 1936) and shares a number of similarities with it. Once again an original Mizoguchi story about women being used by men was scripted by Yoshikata Yoda, and many of the cast members in the preceding film reappeared in Sisters of the Gion. In particular, Isuzu Yamada, who played the defiant Ayako in Osaka Elegy, reprises her role of an independent woman, this time in the role of Omocha. If we compare the two films, however, we see that Sisters of the Gion exhibits a number of advances over its predecessor.
The film is set in the famous Gion neighborhood of Kyoto, which was well-known for its upscale geisha district. The story concerns the affairs and struggles of two sisters who are both geisha girls, and it drew public attention to the legitimacy and social acceptability of the entire profession and institution of geisha (in the Gion district, the full-fledged geisha are called, “geiko”). The older of the two girls, the no longer youthful Umekichi, is gentle, considerate, and accepts the limitations that society has placed on her position. Her younger sister, the pretty Omocha, is a feisty charmer who is out for all that she can get. As far as Omocha is concerned, all men are selfish and only look after their own interests; they deserve to be “used” and exploited, since they, themselves, are always using geisha girls. The plot of the film has four basic segments:
- Introduction to the Two Sisters (11 minutes). The opening scene features a 66-second long tracking shot the overlooks the auctioning off all the assets to Shimbei Furusawa’s dry goods business. The once wealthy businessman is now penniless, and after a bitter quarrel with his shrewish wife, goes to visit his faithful geisha woman, the demure and gentle Umekichi. Furusawa has been her long time special patron. Umekichi's younger sister, Omocha, soon appears, wearing modern dress and displaying rude and impudent manners. Umekichi, who genuinely loves Furusawa, agrees to have him move in to their household, even though the two sisters have very little means. Immediately after he leaves to get his things, Omocha expresses her disgust with the idea of taking in such a loser, and this leads to a lengthy argument between the modern, school-educated Omocha and her older sister, who has had a more traditional upbringing, concerning how one should treat old acquaintances. The argument extends to the next day and includes a glorious 160-second tracking shot as the two sisters walk in the park and discuss their differences. Umekichi insists that she should be loyal to her long-time patron, whereas Omocha says he isn’t owed anything: he always got what he paid for. You should simply use men, just like they use us, she says:
“A geisha’s only purpose is to give men pleasure. They pay us to be their playthings. We’re bought and sold like common goods.”
- Omocha’s Scheming Manoeuvers (24 minutes). Now Omocha takes action to exploit the men around her. First she flirts with a clothing shop clerk, Kimura, in order to get him to steal an expensive kimono for her sister, a needed accoutrement in order to attract a new, wealthy patron. Then she meets Furusawa’s colleague, Mr. Jurakudo, and charms him out of some cash that she can use to send Furuawa packing. Finally, she meets Furusawa in private and tells him that his sister wants to get rid of him and gives him some of the cash from Jurakudo to find other digs. Umekichi is then told that Furusawa has left town.
- Omocha’s Success (14 minutes). Kimura, the dry goods shop clerk who stole the kimono for Omocha, is found out by his proud and dictatorial boss, Mr Kudo. Kudo goes to visit Omocha to get the kimono back, but after Omocha turns on the charm, he is also soon seduced. At the end of this act, Omocha is seen admiring her ill-gotten gains (a new dress) in the mirror and boasting to Umekichi, who is now being pressured by her sister to accept the wealthy Mr. Jurakudo as her new patron.
- The Sisters’ Downfall (20 minutes). But Omocha’s triumph is short-lived, and the pace quickens. Kimura stops by while Omocha is out and innocently informs Umekichi that Furusawa is still in town. Omocha and Kudo show up and Kimura, shocked to learn that Kudo is now Omocha’s patron, calls Omocha a tramp. Omocha haughtily dismisses him. Umekichi rushes out, finds Furusawa, and arranges to leave her lying sister's quarters and move in with him at his new place. In short order all of Omocha’s lies have been exposed. The consequences will now have to be paid. A car, allegedly from Kudo, comes to pick up Omocha, but once inside the car, she learns that she is being kidnapped by the revenge-minded Kimura and his thug friend. She winds up in the hospital with severe injuries, and Umekichi rushes to her side. She gently scolds Omocha, telling her that this is what happens when you mistreat people, but soon she, too, faces mistreatment from a man. She has been abandoned by her soul-mate, Furusawa, who has been offered a factory manager job in his wife’s home village and has suddenly left in a rush. His departing message to Umekichi, conveyed to her by the serving girl, is “go find a better patron”. The final scene in Omacha’s hospital room shows both sisters lamenting the abusive and selfish way they have been treated by men.
It is interesting to compare Mizoguchi’s film aesthetic with that of von Sternberg, who Mizoguchi has acknowledged to be one his major influences. Both directors have focussed their attention on women and how they relate to men. But von Sternberg’s vision of women is seen through an extremely romantic and Expressionistic filter. His women are beautiful as well as unfathomable and unearthly beings who either offer or demand absolute submission to love. In Mizoguchi's films, on the other hand, there is also something deep and unknowable about women, too – but his women are seen more intimately and with greater sympathy. In his universe, women are always forced to play a game with the deck stacked against them. And there is more variety to his women. Omocha is not simply a passive victim, but a person who has tried to figure out how to make her own way in a soulless and hypocritical world, where high values are espoused but conveniently ignored. Her character is more richly drawn and complex: even though her behaviour is problematic, we see how she is trapped, and we can sympathise with her plight.
In contrast to the women, Mizoguchi’s men, although they sometimes put up a manly front, seem to be spineless or helpless in connection with their behaviour towards women. Compared to Mizoguchi’s selfish male players, though, Von Sternberg’s men (at least some of them) are more romantic and self-sacrificing. Nevertheless, it is interesting that despite the almost uniform worthlessness of the male characters in Sisters of the Gion, they are generally a bit more than simple, one-dimensional stereotypes – we recognise (and perhaps even slightly sympathise with) them from our own experiences. In fact the overall view of men as "slackers" and women as "strivers" has now become a prominent thread in American movies, too, as remarked by David Denby in his article, "A Fine Romance". So what we see in Sisters of the Gion is by no means exclusive to Japanese society. But Mizoguchi's films are probably not exclusively attacking one sex in favour of the other, but instead are critiquing an overarching social order that channels the behaviour of both men and women in an unsatisfactory manner.
Both Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion show women struggling to survive in unfair circumstances. They both offer more sophisticated characterisations than the typical Hollywood screen stereotypes depicting innocent women victimized by cruel masters. In the two Mizoguchi films, the narratives present situations which, even though contrived, are not so artificially one-sided and can be seen more circumspectively. This suggests a response to a possible objection to Mizoguchi's approach. One might criticise Mizoguchi and Yoda for exaggerating the manipulative nature of Ayako in Osaka Elegy and Omocha in Sisters of the Gion, and thereby diminishing their innocence -- they got what they deserved, one might argue. But by casting these characters as they have done, the filmmakers have distanced the viewer from constant identification with any single character, and this places the larger social context into a sharper focus. This kind of distancing effect is stronger and the social message more forceful in Sisters of the Gion than in its predecessor.
The cinematography in Sister of the Gion is also more fluid and sophisticated than that of Osaka Elegy. Most of the camera shots are artfully composed and have durations of more than one minute, with careful framing maintained by means of subtle panning and dollying. There is a memorable shot of of this type lasting 3:06, when Omocha meets privately with Mr. Furusawa and tells him he has become a burden and that he should move out. Omocha’s flirtation with Mr. Kudo is a such shot, lasting 3:20, and it has perfectly motivated and unobtrusive camera movement. The fluid cinematography is actually the outstanding feature of this film, and it will become even more of a Mizoguchi trademark in his subsequent work.