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Sisters of Gion

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The role of suffering woman as an object to be admired with ample outpourings of sympathy is a well established traditional trope familiar from Mizoguchi’s 1936 film “Sisters of Gion”. The film represents that the gender system is most apparent and links up with Mizoguchi’s reputation as a filmmaker who dwells on women issues such as discrimination of women through the story of geisha.

The plot of the film revolves around two women working as low ranking geishas in the pleasure quarters of Gion in Kyoto. The elder sister Umekichi (Yoko Umemura) believes in the traditional values of duty and obligation giri, which in theory govern the relationship between a geisha and her client. On the other hand, the young girl Omocha (Yamada Isuzu), a modan garu and a graduate from high school espouses a cynical view of the relationship, which she regards as being based purely on exploitation. The younger sister, Omocha possesses a modern education and a feminist sensibility that expresses itself as a radical critique of men and the geisha system (Cazdyn, 2002).

Cazdyn (2002) notes that from the very first time we meet Umekichi and Omocha, we hear them discussing the state of women. Omocha recognizes that the system is structured by dominance, therefore, rendering it foolish to trust any man or feel guilty about misfortunes that might beset them. Umekichi stresses that she is not ignorant of the oppression women face and seems perturbed by Omocha’s condescension. It should be noted that the oppressive structure is not limited to the two sisters. It also affects the higher class wives of Furusawa and Kudo (Cazdyn, 2002). 

The film argues that it is only natural for women to resent the prejudice they face in a male dominated society and turn to crime to fight it (Sato, 2008). According to Sato (2008), the film should be evaluated as a realist film, a bitter exposure of the tough life of the geisha, far removed from its external glamour. Viewers are moved by its stinging indictment of the system socially, ethically and in class terms and by its vivid depiction of the new breed of a woman who would fight male selfishness.

At one point, it can be noted that this is a story of a geisha who conceives of a crude plan to ensnare a man into supporting her (Sato, 2008). The film uses this plot to approach the issue of women’s position with utter seriousness and to argue that within the means available to them, this is the only way they can resist men. Although the two sisters in the Mizoguchi’s film “Sisters of Gion” Gion no shimai 1936 are geishas, this film only deals peripherally with their work world (King, 2012). However, it emphasizes that such women are economic outcasts entirely dependent on male whims. King (2012) says that this reality of life made the younger Omocha (Isuzu Yamada) bitter and cynical in contrast to the more naïve Umekichi (Yoko Umemura) (p. 152). In this context, women should use men, Omocha instructs her sister because she is convinced that women can outwit their male foes.

The film begins and ends with the two women in conversation whereby at the outset, the younger sister is outraged by the plight of geisha, and she keeps her low opinion of her profession and of the men they serve (King, 2012). To a large extent, she sets in motion her own unhappiness, but it is the profession of geisha in which women are sexual objects that compelled her to act like that (King, 2012).

In Mizoguchi’s film, the surface of things is delusory. For that auteur, the geisha existence is a simulacrum of authentic feelings. King (2012) argues that geishas ply their trade in order to survive, but that survival is fraught. These women learn how to lie, he observes, but they are caught in a vicious trap where men are more mendacious and self-serving then women could ever be.

The director of the film paved the way for a possible feminist reexamination of the gold-digger archetype with Gion no shimai. Campbell (2006) says that Omocha (Isuzu Yamanda), rejecting the notion of giri or social obligation to which her older sister Umekichi adheres contends that men who come to the geisha district use their money to make playthings pout of women.

In a final passionate outburst emphasized by a track in to medium close-up, Omocha implies that acquisitive behavior is only a logical response to the gendered exploitation of prostitution. Iles (2008) outlines that feminism in the film aims at changing the received conception of woman which male society had hitherto created. The problem is one of a received essential difference between men and women which creates division in access to power, to representation and to social position (Iles, 2008). The director of the film “Sisters of Gion” sees this as an opportunity to approach social organization and the fulfillment of individual potential from a starting point to support acceptance, based neither on privilege nor prejudice.  

In conclusion, the film is a representation  of feminist cinema from any country, exposing the dehumanizing conditions in which geishas lived during Japan’s early modern period. However, at the end of this film feminism stands as the most basic of humanisms, suggesting the absolute unimportance of biological; sex in any determination of individual ability or suitability for a given social function. Mizoguchi stands out as an anomaly, a male director truly sensitive to the aspirations of women around him.

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