Sisters of the Gion is a Japanese film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. It was originally released in 1936 and released on Criterion DVD on October 21, 2008 as part of the Criterion subset, Eclipse Series 13: Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women, combining Osaka Elegy, Sisters of the Gion, Women of the Night, and Street of Shame as a box set.
Two sisters, living in the Gion district, find themselves on different paths. While both working as geishas, one sister yearns for a more progressive lifestyle while the other is subservient.
The film opens in a state of transition, reminiscent of a stationary foreground with a moving background. The camera steadily pans from left to right, exposing a storeroom, an open auction with animated men bidding on the wares, a progressively emptying lot, and finally a bare, tatami covered floor, with a tenant packing her reduced belongings, and a distraught man. This captures two things: the tone for the current state of affairs and the conflict of traditional Japan meeting a modern Japan. Travelling in tandem to the classic and contemporary lifestyles, are Umekichi (Yoko Umemura) and Omocha (Isuzu Yamada). As the eldest and bound to the older ways, Umekichi sees her profession as a geisha deeply rooted providing the utmost undivided attention and service to her male customers. Omocha is a woman of the modern age, educated and defiant, questioning the societal hierarchy and expectations of women. Their differing opinions cause conflict as Omocha takes it upon herself to weave a few lies and sacrifice a few hearts for the sake of a more fortunate and wealthy life.
Japan can be characterized as a conservative country. The level of political awareness and exposure of women in the pleasure industry is a bold take by director Kenji Mizoguchi, particularly since Sisters of the Gion is representative of the time period in which the movie takes place. Mizoguchi utilizes the confines and stuffiness of the indoors by framing his scenes with clean outer borders and a considerably smaller focal point, often one-third of the entire frame. The precise lines of the buildings, the shoji screens, and banners banners makes it possible to create this artificial frame around his subjects. In the few outdoor instances, the airiness is apparent: the glow and movement of the river can be better appreciated, and the visit to the shrine is a temporary break full of bright openness.
As Sisters of the Gion is the first Criterion movie I have watched, I was met with disappointment to find no supplementary interviews or booklet. It is possible the timing in which the four movies in this series were released, pre and post war era, had a hand in any additional information being documented.
Sisters of the Gion is concise at only 68 minutes; it moves quickly without being confusing as to the turn of the events, nor does it feel like there is something amiss. Sisters of the Gion is as artful as it is engaging, contending with the over-romanticized vision of a geisha and providing early proof of the struggles of women in a male-dominated society.
Criterion Grade: B-
Film Grade: A