Reviewed by Chris MaGee
Geisha: the word conjures up visions of exquisite kimono clad women, hair piled into a suggestive peach of black hair. Part courtesan and part performance artist they’re a tourist book symbol of the exotic East; women of intrigue and sensuality, but hiding it all behind a serene painted mask, inhabitants of the mythic “Floating World”, beautiful, but out of reach. For director Mikio Naruse, though, capturing these ideal flowers of Japan in full bloom would be pointless. It was never the pinnacle of women’s lives that Naruse was interested in, it was the inevitable fall and the real person revealed behind the façade. So when Naruse chose to show us geisha in his 1954 film “Late Chrysanthemums” these flowers of Japan were well past their prime.
It’s a difficult hand-to-mouth existence for a group of former geisha living in a back street neighbourhood in Kyoto. Their girlhood studies in poetry, shamisen, tea ceremony, and dance have done little to prepare them for the harsh realities of middle age. While there are still some last vestiges of the old vanity of their profession (one woman has insisted her grown son call her “sister” instead of “mother”) mostly they have faded into the background, eking out a living in the far less glamorous world of post-war Japan.
Nobu and her husband make ends meet with their own restaurant and running a little pawn business on the side. Tamae is trying to fight her way out of debt so she can hold onto her small inn, but illness has taken its toll on her. Her roommate Tomi tries her best to help out, at least when she’s not playing pachinko or betting on the races for hours on end. The only member of the group who seems to have flourished in her post-geisha life is Kin (Haruko Sugimura) who has become a successful money lender. She can afford nice kimono and is able to employ a house girl and she still maintains the haughtiness and remove of a geisha at her prime. Her frozen smile masks a belt and braces determination to succeed epitomized by her personal motto “Eat or be eaten isn’t just for men.” The livelihood of her old sisters dangle off Kin’s purse strings, so this attitude hasn’t made her popular with Nobu and the others, but Kin doesn’t seem to care. She’s not a geisha anymore, so she sees no reason to please. Soon Kin’s fortitude will be tested, though, by two men from her past: one who nearly took Kin’s life in a love suicide and the other Kin’s only true love who when she was young would travel across the country to see. Which of these still harbor feelings for the once beautiful geisha?
As in all of his films Naruse brings a keen understanding to human behaviour, and despite his famously taciturn directing style he brings beautifully nuanced and surprisingly naturalistic performances out of his actors who came from the broad acting traditions of 30’s and 40’s Japan. Haruko Sugimura is allowed to expand upon the somewhat sour busybody that she played time and again in the films of Yasujiro Ozu, and by showing us glimpses of the romantic, girlish geisha that she once was Naruse and Sugimura bring the audience to the end of the film empathizing with the Kin’s uncompromising, hard as nails approach to life. Sadako Sawamura, Chikako Hosokawa, and Yuko Mochizuki as Kin’s former geisha sisters perform wonderfully as well, providing a chorus of regrets, nostalgia, and the classic Japanese lament of “Shikata ga nai” or “Nothing can be done about it”. Many have described Naruse’s films as showing women be allowed to progress only so far in society and then hitting the brick wall of resistance, but Nobu, Tamae, and Tomi hit that wall long before “Late Chrysanthemums” begins. Their weariness and constant replays of stories from their glory days give the trio an almost absurdist, Beckett-like quality.
Overall “Late Chrysanthemums” is another wonderful example of a Mikio Naruse film. Let’s only hope that Criterion or another distributor will greatly expand the availability of his films on DVD here in North America sooner than later.