Blogathons, Films I Love, Japanese Cinema

The Non English Language Blogathon: Sisters Of The Gion(1936)

cthd_languageblogathon2Catherine over at Thoughts All Sorts is hosting this blogathon about Foreign Language films. Be sure to visit her site to read all of the entries, I can’t wait to read them all myself.

I had to take part in this blogathon because I adore foreign language films. I love many of them not only for being excellent films, but also because they provide me with a glimpse into other cultures and different ways of living life. 

I think that anyone who only watches films and series from their native country is seriously missing out, there are so many film and TV gems to be found from around the world. My favourite country for foreign language films is Japan.

There are three great masters of Japanese cinema in my opinion. The first one is Akira Kurosawa. He made some truly epic masterpieces. He was also responsible for helping to bring Japanese films to the attention of Western audiences. 

The second one is Yasujiro Ozu. His films were all about characters and emotions, he told very human stories which appeal to audiences the world over. His films also gave us the enchanting Setsuko Hara, the actress who was Ozu’s screen muse. 

The third one is Kenji Mizoguchi. Kenji Mizoguchi’s films uniquely often focused upon the struggles and hardships that women faced in society at the time his films were made.   

For this blogathon I’ve decided to write about the 1936 Japanese film Sisters Of The Gion. This film is directed by one of my favourite film directors of all time, Kenji Mizoguchi. I love Kenji Mizoguchi’s work because his films are very realistic, gritty, and because they also focus much more on the characters rather than on the visuals and the mood of the film.

I also love Kenji’s films so much because they deal very frankly with subjects and issues that most other films of this period didn’t focus on all that much. I love that his films focus primarily on women and on the way they are treated. His films focus on the things that women have to do to survive, and they also show the strength and determination of women who are enduring tough and bad times in their life. 

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Umekichi and Omocha take a walk together. Screenshot by me.

Sisters Of The Gion is one of Kenji Mizoguchi’s finest films in my opinion. It is a real character piece and it feels very modern when viewed today because of the strong feminist attitudes present in the film.

The film tells the story of two very different sisters. There is the outgoing, modern and rebellious Omocha(Isuzu Yamada), and the older, much more traditional and submissive Umekichi(Yoko Umemura). 

The sisters both work as geishas in a district of Kyoto. They do the same job, but each woman holds  very different opinions about what they do and how they are viewed and treated. 

Omocha hates men and she just views them as means to get money and nice things. She feels that men use women (especially geishas)for their own desires and then abandon them when they are through. She is also better educated and far more wordly than her older sister is.

Omocha is also very modern in her views and she mostly wears modern Western clothes, instead of always wearing more traditional Japanese attire. Omocha also has no hesitation about playing with the feelings of her male clients in order to get something that she wants from them. The way she sees it, if the men can use the women, then why can’t the women play them at their own game?

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Omocha sweet-talks her patron. Screenshot by me.

Umekichi on the other hand is dutiful and passive, she also seems to genuinely enjoy her role as a companion and source of pleasure for male clients. She also feels that things are not as black and white as her younger sister makes them out to be.

Umekichi knows that there are some men who are not all bad and are not out to use the geishas and abandon them when they are finished with them.

Despite their many differences, the two sisters love each other very much and they always look out for each other no matter what. Umekichi is deeply in love with her patron Shimbei Furusawa (Benkei Shiganoya)and she offers him help when he goes bankrupt. Omocha plays with the hearts of two men in order to get gifts and money from them; the first man she toys with is a young store clerk who loves her, the second man is his much older boss who is persuaded to become her new patron.

I think that the two sisters represent the two different types of women who have always existed throughout history. One represents women who accept their lot in life, and who are accepting and uncomplaining when their man treats them badly. The other represents women who fight for equality, for protection from abuse and for the ability to be away from the control of men.

 I also like that the film shows how strong women can be in times of hardship and pain, the spirit of these women may break, they may be beaten and tossed aside, but they endure and struggle on and they never give up and wilt away.  Mizoguchi’s films often show the appalling ways women of this time were treated, but they also clearly highlight their courage and internal strength to make the best of what life throws at them.

The film also shows us that society often lets men get away with sleeping around, being abusive and using women for no other reason than that they are men. If a woman did the same things as men, then she would find herself being punished and judged for sleeping around. Double standards much?

In this film all the male characters we see have control over women, and they also have a controlling position in their own life in some way, such as their job or their wealth for example. It seems like the women in this time only have three options in life; the first choice is to marry and bear children, the second is to become a geisha or prostitute, the third is to try and live an independent life which will earn them disapproval and alienation from a very traditional society. 

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The two sisters represent two very different types of women. Screenshot by me.

If women of this time didn’t conform to traditions they suffered. If they did conform to traditions, many would suffer emotionally because they didn’t love the man they were married to, or because deep down they hated themselves for selling their bodies for money. 

By the end of this film, both Omocha and Umekichi will discover just how they are actually perceived and valued by men. The ending is quite bleak and I really like that it doesn’t sugar coat the life endured by many women the world over at this point in history. 

The performances are all very good and the film really draws you in. The only downsides to the film are that it is very short, it clocks in at just one hour and nine minutes long. I would also have liked more scenes between the two sisters. While the film gives us a good sense of their respective personalities and views, I don’t really get a good enough sense of what their sisterly relationship was like, a few more scenes of them interacting on a day to day basis would have been welcome.  

This is an early gem from Kenji Mizoguchi and it feels very modern due to the feminist views found within, and also because of its visual depiction and condemnation of the way women were treated by some men.

I highly recommend it. I think that this film could also serve as a good gateway film to Kenji Mizoguchi’s work and to Japanese cinema in general. If you haven’t ventured outside your country for films and series before, then I would say to you be brave, go and check some foreign language films out. Once you get accustomed to subtitles these films and series are very easy to get into.

What do you think of this film?

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9 thoughts on “The Non English Language Blogathon: Sisters Of The Gion(1936)”

  1. Great post, and great choice of films. For whatever reason, I’ve always had trouble getting into Mizoguchi’s period pieces and tend to prefer his films in contemporary settings, and I remember liking this one a lot. As I recall, the ending in particular was moving and surprisingly modern. I’ll have to revisit this one soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Maddy, this sounds great. I’m so glad you brought this one to my attention – love discovering new “foreign” movies. Your favourite director? Hmmm, I’d better get myself into gear and catch up…never watched any of his movies…that definitely has to change.
    Thanks so much for joining me with this Blogathon. I’m off to read your other entry now.

    Liked by 1 person

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