Osaka Elegy, Sisters of the Gion

  • 祇園の姉妹 (Sisters of the Gion), 11/6/16 (Sun)
  • 浪華悲歌 (Osaka Elegy), 11/13/16 (sun)

The films that solidified Mizoguchi’s status as director in the mid 1930s. 

Osaka Elegy (浪華悲歌) is the lesser film. The main actress’ attempted manipulation of her suitors and the behavior of her family were not overly convincing, though well played. The lover’s agreement to participate in her final scheme was particularly unlikely. The plot felt mechanical. Still, Mizoguchi created a memorable character in the main woman, and watching her ultimate decline was unsettling. There was one fantastically unnerving moment at the very end when the actress walks defiantly straight into the camera, suggesting that she will survive somehow. It’s almost as if she is walking into the next film.

Sisters of the Gion is a superior film contrasting a traditional geisha and her younger, more free-wheeling sister. As with the previous film, the younger sister (Yamada Isuzu, the same actress as the earlier piece) twists her prey to achieve her purposes, such as wheedling money out of a hapless suitor and unceremoniously dumping him when she no longer needs him. It’s hard to feel sorry for her when she gets her comeuppance, but she is not unsympathetic in her determination to make her own way in life without relying on others. As it happens, her older sister (Umemura Yoko) fares no better when she turns down a moneyed suitor for the ruined client that she truly loves, finding herself betrayed in the end as well when he goes back to his wife. Good and bad, the film suggests, don’t matter in the real world for women, who have no recourse but to depend one way or another on men for their livelihoods. The younger sister is impressively bold to the end, where even in her hospital bed after the spurned lover’s revenge, she vows to move forward. The performances are all first-rate, and the direction masterful, starting with the single shot that opens the film spanning from the auction of the ruined man’s assets to settle in the very end on the women – a telling metaphor. The scene when the sisters are walking in the temple grounds is also very fine, including the contrast in appearance and even accent between the kimonoed geisha and the rebellious younger sibling in Western dress. The film is an extension of the earlier movie in its view of women and portrait of manipulation but is far more accomplished. There is a stage version coincidentally opening this month that runs nearly three hours, but the film says everything it needs in a compact 70 minutes.

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