Gion Bayashi (祇園囃子)
14 November 2015 (Sat), DVD
A Mizoguchi film about the plight of women after the war, as usual, but painted on an intimate canvas. A girl who has been subject to the loss of her mother, abandonment by her father and abused by her uncle goes in desperation to the mother’s old geisha house and begs to be trained as a maiko, her only hope for survival. The geisha, whose lack of a patron makes her financially unstable, hesitates to take on the high cost of a trainee, but eventually gives in, borrowing the necessary money from a powerful madam in Gion. After a long apprenticeship, the girl makes her appearance as a maiko, but her ideals quickly meet reality when she discovers what the men are really after. Her refusal to give in – she nearly bites an important client’s tongue off – forces her mistress, bound financially to the madam, into a difficult decision.
Women exist in the film to serve a man’s pleasure, and not just by singing and dancing: the man orders the geisha to sleep with his client to seal a business deal, the madam has the geisha ostracized throughout Gion unless she gets the maiko to meet the client’s needs, the father shows up for money when he hears his daughter is a success, and so on. The geisha is hardly innocent; she has lured men with the promise of marriage with no intention whatsoever to follow through, causing at least one humiliated client great pain and anger. (In the movie’s best line, she tells him memorably, “A geisha’s lie is not a real lie. It’s the cornerstone of our profession.”) Reflecting generational change, her crafty avoidance of sex and the dependence that would bring contrasts with the more realistic outlook of the older madam, who tells her she should find a patron while she can, as well as the young apprentice, who refuses outright to sell her body. But the message does not obscure the story, which is exceptionally well told. The characterizations are realistic and skillfully drawn, especially the geisha and madam. The ending is wonderful, showing the deep affection that has arisen between the geisha and maiko amid the rotten world around them. Mizoguchi’s underplayed handling kept the story from veering into melodrama. If Hollywood wants another Memoirs of a Geisha, this is where it should look.
Kogure Michiyo gave a pitch-perfect performance as the geisha, reduced from utter confidence at the start to a severe awareness of just how tenuous her situation is, then ultimately to a near motherly love for the maiko, the one emotion that has been missing. There’s a great scene where she has relented to sleep with the client in order to pay off her debts. She enters the room, where the man is lying on his stomach waiting dispassionately for her to get to it; the camera then closes in on her as, resigned to her fate, she starts to take off her kimono. It’s a devastating scene extremely well shot and acted. Naniwa Chieko was also great as the manipulative madam, and Wakao Ayako was fine as the young girl. Really enjoyed this film.