Sisters of the Gion (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936, Japan)

Sisters of the Gion is a 1936 film from acclaimed Japanese auteur Kenji Mizoguchi. The film is an exploration of the life of women in Japan's lower classes in the 1930s. Specifically, the film tells the story of two geisha women in the pleasure district of Kyoto. Umekichi (Yoko Umemura) has a strong sense of loyalty toward her clients and does not want to abandon them. She demonstrates this by taking in one of her clients - Shimbei Furusawa (Benkei Shiganoya) - after he loses his business. Umekichi's younger sister Omocha, on the other hand, is much more cynical, using men as she needs them. She adopts a Western-style of dress most of the time and does not believe in faithfulness to her clients. 

Omocha throughout the film attempts to shake her sister free of Furusawa, including a scheme involving finding her another client. The film is remarkable for its addressing the plight of lower-class women in this era of Japanese history. It is rare to find such a feminist film at this point in history. For those interested in the life of geishas, this film will be very illuminating. We see the pragmatic concerns of their lives, including covering rent.

What we ultimately find is that, while both sisters adopt different attitudes toward the men they interact with, both of them ultimately meet very sad endings. There is a cynicism in this film that suggests that even if women adopt these more empowering attitudes, they will ultimately fall prey to the system. Style-wise, Mizoguchi exhibits many tendencies here, including the use of low angles, as well as the use of diegetic sound. Close-ups are very rarely used. There is a great efficient use of space here, and it is no wonder this film ranks so highly not only among Mizoguchi's films but among Japanese films generally.



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