Kenji Mizoguchi's 1936 film, Sisters of the Gion (Japanese: 祇園の姉妹), tells the story of two sisters working as geisha in the pleasure district of Gion, Kyoto. Exploring a common theme of Japanese films of that era, Mizoguchi shows us a struggle to make ends meet, as the sisters have fallen upon hard times and are both without a patron. The older sister has been trained as a geisha in the traditional way, and so she believes that her role entails having to always take a backseat to men. However, the younger sister (pictured below), whose name is Omocha, has been educated in the Japanese school system and, with a view to business, has joined the trade to make a few bucks rather than to sacrifice herself to the desires and uses of men as her sister has done.
Omocha means toy or plaything in Japanese and must have been given to the character with the obvious connotations in mind—despite her defiance against what the words imply and against male dominance and female economic dependence. She manipulates men for personal gain while her obsequious sister, Umekichi, serves them no matter how poor or lonely they may be. Omocha tries to sway her sister towards her way of thinking, to see men for who they truly are: essentially subjugators who should be tricked or toyed with for yen. She goes so far as to dupe a clerk into giving her (at no cost) some expensive material, with which she can have a fine kimono made for her sister, currently without a companion and in need of the right type of kimono to attract one. In this regard Omocha isn't self-serving as much as she is serving the needs of women, or at the very least a woman to whom she is related.
Mizoguchi's films are highly regarded for their mise-en-scène and long shots, and Sisters of the Gion isn't short of either. There's a beautifully dark shot of the bankrupt businessman Furusawa walking at night down a narrow Gion street. This long shot is remarkably anachronistic because of its length and it made me feel as though I was watching a recent movie attempting to resurrect 1930s cinema. First a long-take medium profile shot and then a long-take wide shot of him coming down the street, eventually to a "wonton stand" (ワンタン スタンド). Other scenes give glimpses of Kyoto back in the day as well inside people's homes and businesses, including an antique shop. Overall it's a compelling story with beautiful, dark and quite a few grainy images, a bunraku song about suicide, plenty of smoking with traditional kiseru pipes, a surprisingly violent misogynistic act of revenge, vendors vocalizing their goods in the streets, and, most important, an early Shōwa era perspective on the suffering of geisha, and by extension women in general, and on the roles of women in Japanese society.