Criterion Project #46: SISTERS OF THE GION (1936)

Author’s note: Apologies for my unscheduled absence last week. Life became hectic and the prospect of skipping this column eased my stress just enough for me to make the ruling. It proved to be a good decision, even though I subconsciously hated missing out on the post. Nonetheless, I’m back this week and plan to continue my weekly schedule as long as circumstances permit.

Sisters of the Gion

Spine #N/A

Year: 1936

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

As any Criterion fan would be quick to point out, this is a cheat. The Eclipse Series 13: Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women is easily my favorite of the Eclipse line, featuring at least three absolute gems (the other two being Osaka Elegy and Street of Shame), but sadly these films have never received a Blu-ray upgrade, or even a stand-alone release.

So, why am I picking this film instead of a standard collection title?

Because a historic ruling was made this past week when the landmark women’s rights case, Roe vs. Wade, was overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States of America. This judicial body proved to be infuriatingly out-of-touch with the political climate in this country when the disgraceful ruling was made to strip women of their right to choose what happens to their body. I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools, where we were taught strictly about the atrocities of abortion. How immoral and sinful it is to extinguish a life while still in the mother’s womb. Many of these religious values played a major role in the decision to overturn the case.

For that reason alone the case had no business being re-examined. We separate church and state in this country. And that’s because the people affected the most by this ruling might not share the same values as me, and who am I to tell someone else they can’t do something because MY religious beliefs dictate it? Politicians have agendas, and they’re mostly about control. For a political party founded on the principle of smaller government and greater personal freedom, the GOP has chosen to place the single most personal decision a woman can possibly make about her own body in the hands of lawmakers and politicians.

Should life be preserved if possible? Yes. If possible, I believe it should be. But I also believe that I don’t have any right to tell someone else what they can or can’t do with their own body. That’s between God and yourself. Not politicians or judges.

In short, I chose Sisters of the Gion because Kenji Mizoguchi made films predominantly concerning the plight of women in Japanese society. He’s also my favorite filmmaker and I desperately wish Criterion would release more of his films on Blu-ray. But I digress!

The film tells the tale of two geisha sisters, Omocha (Isuzu Yamada) and Umekichi (Yoko Umemura), who have radically different approaches to life and their work. Mizoguchi’s own sister was sold off to be a geisha to keep his father from going bankrupt when he was a child, so he has a personal connection to these tales of women on the fringes of society.

The unequivocal star of the film is Omocha, who schemes and plots against any man she bats her pretty eyes at. She has a very cold way of dealing with her customers – get what you can and move on. Quite the opposite, Umekichi maintains a relationship with a disgraced shop owner who recently went bankrupt and left his wife and family in shame. She dotes on him, much to Omocha’s chagrin, as an act of kindness. She claims the man was nice to her when he had money so she wants to help him in his time of need. Omocha insists he’s a burden and she should focus on other customers who have money.

Along the way we meet a young kimono shop clerk and his boss, both of whom cross paths with Omocha and become players in her little game. She also schemes to get the disgraced shop owner out of their house and out of Umekichi’s life so a more successful customer could be her patron, or sugar daddy in today’s parlance. I had really forgotten how amusing a lot of the set-up is. Mizoguchi tends to fall closer to the melodramatic than the comedic in his films so it was a welcomed recollection.

Through these two diametrically opposed women, he looks at the narrow path women have to walk in Japanese society. Sadly, they’re completely and totally dependent on men. There are two paths for Japanese women – find a rich husband, or become a geisha. If you’re trying to be an individual woman in Japan during this time, your options are limited.

Time and time again, Mizoguchi shows just how much smarter the women are than the men. When the kimono clerk’s boss attempts to reprimand Omocha for scheming his worker into giving her a free kimono, she immediately flips the tables on him. Inside of 10 minutes she has this morally upright business owner putting on a house kimono and sipping sake while Omocha goes on about how she wishes she had a rich patron to take care of her. *Blink-blink, blink-blink*

She masterfully proves she can outsmart these men, so why aren’t these women in a position of respect in this society? Clearly they’re smart enough and have enough common sense. So, why are they stuck being geishas? Because they don’t have the CHOICE to be anything but a man’s plaything. Whether as a subservient wife or an accommodating pleasure worker, you exist to do men’s bidding and those are your two options. And who dictated these narrow paths? It certainly wasn’t women! Through a haunting turn of events at the end of the film, Mizoguchi begs the question – how the hell are women expected to survive?

I’m perfectly aware that this post will turn some people off, but I don’t care. The point of the argument is not about the preservation of life, it’s about telling a group of people they’re not allowed to do something that another group of people doesn’t approve of. It was done under the auspices of legal recourse but was carried out with the stink of hypocritical morality.

So, yeah, I’m irritated and disappointed with this country. The struggle for complete control rages on and, as usual, the people who suffer are the ones with no say in the matter. I’d have to think Mizoguchi would be less than pleased with last week’s ruling and it makes me sad I won’t get to watch a new movie exploring these dangerous themes in the way only he could.

(Also – Criterion, release this in HD already!)

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