A GEISHA (Gion bayashi) (aka: Gion Festival Music)

(director: Kenji Mizoguchi; screenwriters: from the novel by Matsutarô Kawaguchi/Yoshikata Yoda; cinematographer: Kazuo Miyagawa; editor: Mitsuzo Miyata; music: Ichirô Saitô; cast: Michiyo Kogure (Miyoharu), Ayako Wakao (Eiko), Seizaburô Kawazu (Kusuda), Kanji Koshiba (Kanzaki), Chieko Naniwa (Okimi), Eitarô Shindô (Sawamoto); Runtime: 86; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Hisakazu Tsuji; New Yorker Films; 1953-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles)

“It’s one of the finest films on geishas.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Renown Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi (“Street of Shame”/”The Life of Oharu”/”Sansho the Bailiff”) presents a compassionate take on the life of a geisha in postwar Japan. It’s one of the finest films on geishas and also one of Mizoguchi’s greatest films. It’s written by Yoshikata Yoda and is an adaptation of a novel by Matsutaro Kawaguchi.

Set in Kyoto in the Gion district during the postwar period. The pretty but naive 16-year-old Eiko (Ayako Wakao) visits successful geisha Miyoharu (Michiyo Kogure) for help to follow her recently deceased geisha mother’s footsteps. She tells the sympathetic Miyoharu that she’s estranged from her impoverished weakling father Sawamoto (Eitarô Shindô), who took mom away from being a geisha after he met her in a teahouse, but when married she left her defective hubby. Eiko doesn’t want to live with her repressive money-grubbing uncle, who insults her about wanting to be a geisha. When contacted, her father refuses to be a guarantor; so Miyoharu unofficially makes Eiko her little geisha sister and renames her apprentice Miyoe. She also puts up the funds that she borrows from her influential boss Okima to train her properly and dress Eiko in classy kimonos. After a year she becomes a teahouse geisha. But to Miyoharu’s disappointment, she later learns that Okima borrowed the money from devious industrialist Kusada (Seizaburô Kawazu) and he plans on exploiting her for his business interests with wealthy prospective client Kanzaki (Kanji Koshiba). The client is someone Miyoharu met before and detests, and refuses to be with him to her detriment as far as her career goes.

The arc of the story is over the confrontation that develops over Kusada, and shows how difficult it is for a woman in Japan to fit into such a male dominated society and how women must help one another to survive such injustices. In a gentle way, the older geisha teaches the younger one how to sell her emotions but not her body. The businessmen are insensitive and user types, and it’s up to the geisha to play them off so that they seem happy with the service but not to the point where they become abusive. Eiko determines she’s postwar in attitude while Miyoharu is pre-war, but soon discovers her romantic fantasies about the job is not the reality and now questions if she wants to be a geisha.

The thought-provoking film is a good character study of the two women, one who says it’s too late for her to change and the other who says she can’t be with someone she doesn’t like. Mizoguchi questions if the new Japan is really any different than the old Japan, where a career woman had to learn how to sell herself to be successful (both cultures set the same trap for women but with different bait). The final shot has Miyoharu and Miyoe in solidarity walking down a back alley in their working district, dressed in their kimonos, as they keep up the appearances that all’s well in their beautiful traditional world when in fact it’s not since they are living a lie.

REVIEWED ON 7/18/2006 GRADE: A  https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”