(a.k.a. Gion no kyodai)
(Japan, Kenji Mizoguchi)
Few films in 1936 dealt with the lives of prostitutes with the same compassion and empathy as Mizoguchi does in Sisters of the Gion. Mizoguchi, famous for his proto-feminist films, used the extreme exploitation of the socially lowest women (geishas) to comment on the position of all women in Japanese society and he was less than optimistic about their futures.
In this film we follow the divergent paths of two geishas who are also sisters working in the Gion, the red-light district of Kyoto. Both sisters approach their jobs and their relationships with men differently. Umekichi (Yoko Umemura) feels an emotional connection to her clients and holds onto a very real sense of obligation for their patronage. She even goes so far as to take in a former client who has gone broke and has been deserted by his family. Umekichi believes her relationships with long-term regular clients are symbiotic – they are there to benefit and support each other. In a sense, she plays out marital relationships with them.
Umekichi’s younger sister Omocha (Isuzu Yamada), on the other hand, abhors men. She identifies them solely as a means to an end, using them for what she can get out of them, even getting one man to essentially steal from his employer. Her philosophy is that if men treat her like any other commodity – an object to be bartered over – she needs to extract whatever (mostly) material benefits from them she can before they take advantage of her, as she believes is inevitable. Through all of her cooing and cajoling we see little true emotion toward her clients (like her sister would exhibit), but that lack of real emotion is what vain, self-centered men want: attention from a pretty young girl without the messy complications of romance or responsibility. She plays the part well until she doesn’t need the man anymore, discarding them no matter what the repercussions.
Mizoguchi has presented the two extremes of women’s relationships with men. In neither of them, he tells us, can women become truly independent or successful on their own terms. Their lives are always intertwined with men’s. Their destinies will be determined by the often men, consciously or not. Can women carve out a middle ground between Umekichi’s hopeful subservience and Omocha’s coldhearted manipulation? Perhaps, but Mizoguchi isn’t confident. Both Umekichi and Omocha face disaster despite their differing approaches to men. Though they represent the extremes, where would the middle ground be? Where would a woman be able to succeed without a man, either as a husband or as a patron? In both cases, men would determine how far a woman could go and how independent they would be. Mizoguchi laments that a woman has to hope for a decent man in her life if she has any chance of being even marginally happy. This is no way to live, as both Umekichi and Omocha discover in Sisters of the Gion, one of Mizoguchi’s earliest masterpieces.