Retro Cinema Classics: ‘A Geisha’ (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)
Though Kenji Mizoguchi has covered the plight of geisha throughout most, if not all, of his oeuvre, I don’t think I’ve seen it done in as blunt a fashion as is done here. The fit of frustration that beckoned a screamed “why” at the end of Sisters of a Gion certainly precedes and at least matches much of the directness on display here, but that scream was like a cry for help after a long road of despair. An existential query with an exclamation point to the gods who would allow such a profession to be so utterly necessary for so many women. Mizoguchi, more than just about any director, toyed with the Madonna/Whore Complex and complicated the dichotomous view of female sexuality so many men have. The approach is relatively simple in theory: make the women full, flawed characters that remain sympathetic in spite of their “poor” decisions made in poverty-induced desperation. It’s easy for a man to sympathize with another man, but it’s significantly less so for a man to sympathize with a woman, creature so innately alien to the masculine mind.
Mizoguchi’s geisha, more specifically those prominently featured in the film A Geisha, are situated in a post-war framework where the youth are beginning to display a fundamental displeasure with the state of their country. Eiko, a young girl, having left her home with her uncle after he insisted she sleep with him to pay off a debt, enters an apprenticeship with the head mistress of a tea house in Gion, the quintessential district for those seeking accompaniment. The oldest lords over the house with the sole purpose of maintaining an image of subservience and a steady flow of income. Though early on she shows pity on the mistress and her debutante and loans them the money so that the young girl may make a proper debut to open up relationships with potential clientele, we soon find her preoccupation with prestige is far beyond that of her capability to relinquish her dictatorial control over her subordinates. Herein lies but one aspect of Mizoguchi’s fair-minded approach. The role of tyrannical “boss” is typically left to a clean cut man in a suit and tie, usually smoking a cigar or just generally being some form of upper class caricature, but Mizoguchi’s heartless boss is a woman, beyond her years in the business and refusing to allow the sands of time to carve her business outlook.
Miyoharu, Eiko’s new surrogate mother, wishes to fan the flames of discourse that breathe in Eiko, but believes herself to be beyond help at this stage. She begins the film with prestige in the forefront of her mind, but her fondness for her surrogate child slowly ekes its way into her subconscious and she finds herself supporting the defiant and violent actions of Eiko, who had bitten the lip of a man who forced himself on her, not long after asking her geisha teacher if the constitution she spoke of that proclaimed her an individual with rights allowed her to sue a man if he had done so, to which the teacher replied indifferently and a fellow student chuckled at and sarcastically recommended she speak to a lawyer, not the teacher. Miyoharu and Eiko both exercise their individuality in different ways at key points during the film: Miyoharu refuses to see a man she’s not attracted to and instead simply avoids him, causing her to lose the essential approval of her mother, the elder whose word is law in Gion, whereas Eiko feels the pressure to satisfy both her new mother, the expectations of the house and the client who sought her company, so she goes, reluctant, and fights back when put in a tight spot. Eiko’s youthful fire and naiveté inspire the maternal instincts in Miyoharu as well as her long-buried discontent with her profession and the hierarchy found within. Eiko’s antics shake up their house and leave both of them client-less, disreputable and poor. Even in their financial destitution, Miyoharu finds something to give to Eiko’s father for money, who despite having abandoned his daughter, remains an ever-so tragic figure, constantly shuffling between hope and suicide as his business slowly crumbles. A Geisha is not Mizoguchi’s best film, that honor still resides with Sisters of the Gion for this writer, but it is a good politically-influenced fable that carries at least some of Mizoguchi’s trademark stylistic talent.
– Chris Clark