(Gion no shimai)

Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. Japan. 1939.

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Considered to be one of the best pre-war films by the acclaimed Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi, Sisters of the Gion is a story of two sisters, both Geisha girls in the Gion section of Kyoto, who have very different attitudes toward men. Umekichi (Yoko Umemura) is traditional and loyal to her patrons while her sister Omocha (Isuzu Yamada) is a pragmatist who uses men to her advantage even if it means deception and lies. Ultimately it seems to make no difference as both girls are trapped in an existence that provides little satisfaction. This is a lovely film that presents a fascinating portrait of Japanese life before the war showing streets that looked like narrow passageways, elevated tatami rooms used for drinking tea and smoking pipes, and buildings no higher than two stories. 

In the film, Umekichi is devoted to a bankrupt businessman, Shimbei Furusawa (Benkei Shiganoya) who comes to live with the sisters after an argument with his wife. Omocha is unhappy with this arrangement, telling Umekichi she should have no use for a man who doesn't support them. She convinces an antique dealer Jurakuso (Fumio Okura) to give her money to pay off Furusawa so that Jurakuso can become Umekichi's patron, but she ends pocketing half. On hearing that a textile clerk is in love with her, Omocha persuades Kimura (Taizo Fukami) to steal the company's materials to enable her sister to wear an acceptable kimono for a party of wealthy patrons. 

The destiny of the two sisters reaches its inevitable conclusion when the store clerk is fired and exacts his revenge on Omocha, and when Furusawa leaves Umekichi to become a manager of a rayon company. While Mizoguchi's film is a protest against the specific conditions of women in pre-war Japan, the film strikes a universal chord in its compelling depiction of the sad consequences of treating human beings as marketable commodities.

Howard Schumann
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