祇園囃子 (Gion Bayashi)
Running time: 85 min.
Reviewed by Bob Turnbull
"A geisha's lie is not a real lie. It's a cornerstone of our profession."
Geishas live in a world of lies. They lie to their clients (who lie back to them), get lied to by their Madams and lie to themselves. Everyday. Kenji Mizoguchi's 1953 film "Gion Bayashi" (also known as "A Geisha" or sometimes "Gion Music Festival") is perhaps the definitive (and nicely succinct at 84 minutes long) statement of the life of a geisha in early post-war Japan. Through the story of two separate geisha (an experienced old-school one and a young, but determined, debutante), the movie gradually paints the picture of a life that is but a step away from indentured servitude. The young geisha trainees are told that they represent the beauty of Japan to foreigners and that they are "living works of art" - truer than the young girls may think since they get bought, sold and used at the whims of their "patrons". Put on display like artwork in a gallery, the Madams of this world show off their geisha and can essentially commission new works for these art patrons. The times have changed since geisha were held in respected positions - the men now hold all the power.
The story opens with 16 year-old Eiko looking for Mistress Miyoharu (a geisha colleague of her recently deceased mother). Eiko's father has fallen on hard times and has left to find work elsewhere while she struggles to keep her uncle's hands off her. Though she doesn't have a guarantor to fund her training, Eiko begs Miyoharu to teach her the ways of the geisha. Struck by the girl's very determined approach, Miyoharu asks for a loan from Madam Okimi who is one of the Gion area's most powerful Madams. This sets them up well for the next year of intense training (which in shown in a montage of scenes of Eiko learning the shamisen, different forms of percussion, protocols, dance, etc. - it's no wonder there was a Geisha instructor listed in the crew's credits) until Eiko - now renamed Miyoei for her clients - is ready for her debut. At 17 she is a bit young, but she is confident and eager to begin meeting clients. However, she's still quite naive. She gets drunk her first night on sake (not realizing it could make you "feel that way") and still thinks that she will have some say in who her patron may be. She receives a rude awakening from a fellow student, though, who explains that a patron expects the girls to sleep with them. She knows this because she has already been sold to a 62 year-old man by her own mother who expects her to become a more accomplished geisha this way ("Everyone says I'll do well out of it...").
But Eiko is a post-war child (as Miyoharu calls her) and when told that businessman Kusuda wants to be her patron, she states that she will observe him and then decide if she likes him. What she doesn't realize is that her fate has already been decided - it was Kusuda who actually funded her initial training behind Okimi. He bought her before she had even started. Things come to a head when she rejects Kusuda's advances and bites his lip so hard that it sends him to the hospital. Even worse, though, is that the confusion the event creates causes Miyoharu to spurn her own suitor - a young man from the government who holds decision-making power that will affect a major investment from Kusuda. The geisha have now become pawns in a larger struggle for power and money among the men. Their wrath comes down on Okimi and she is ordered to fix things. Her angry and condescending words to Miyoharu (e.g. "How much longer are you going to embarrass me?") mirror the contempt she received from Kusuda's business partner. Okimi's power in the district enables her to shut down Miyoharu and Eiko from getting any work at all and they are now forced to make the choice between sticking to their principles and making ends meet and survive. Given the tough times around them (shown in the very first scene of the film with a woman walking through the streets almost desperately hawking her wares, sweets and crickets), is it even really much of a choice?
The film takes the idea of two different geisha (with old and new ideas) from Mizoguchi's own earlier film "Sisters Of Gion" and weaves it into a tighter cohesive whole. It seems that no matter what approach these women take towards their profession - whether they embrace the past as symbols of beauty or try to change their roles by choosing their own paths - they quickly become slaves. The money they owe and the favours they owe don't seem to ever be repayable. Even more importantly for their superiors is retaining appearances - Okimi says she is embarrassed to show her face, while Kusuda demands that Miyoharu sleep with the man from the ministry simply so that he does not lose face himself - "You just have to close your eyes"). Even Eiko's father - who wouldn't help her with any training expenses and essentially disowned her when she becomes a geisha - comes back to Miyoharu to ask for a share of her earnings since he feels entitled to it. And entitlement is a common feeling among the men of this world - struggling to recover from the defeat of the war, they seem insistent on controlling as much as possible around them. Mizoguchi's long takes with the women pull you into their world and behind the many curtains he shoots the geisha through, but the bars on the varied doors and gates that Eiko and Miyoharu find themselves behind, tell you that they can never be pulled out of that world.
Read more from Bob Turnbull at his blog.