Another movie for "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 27 is called "Kinema Junpo Week".
Kinema Junpo is Japan's oldest and premiere cinema magazine. Once a decade they poll Japanese critics to name the best Japanese films of all time. 2009 was their biggest poll yet, with just short of 200 films listed. Like with the 1,001 Films... list, there may be a new version of this list after the publication of this Season Challenge, and if so, you are free to choose a film from either the 2009 version or the 2019 version.
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Kinema Junpo’s Greatest Japanese Films list.
This is my third Mizoguchi film (after Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff), which is not enough for me to have any useful opinions about his work as a whole. I came to Sisters of the Gion cold ... among other things, I didn't know what the title meant. (Gion is a famous geisha district in Kyoto, although I don't know how it might have been different in 1936, when the film was not only made but when it takes place.) The movie is indeed about two geisha sisters. One of the primary themes is generational; the older sister, Umekichi, has more traditional views about the role of the geisha, while the younger, Omocha, resists traditions. Mizoguchi doesn't choose sides, but Omocha does appear to have more control of her life, and her role in the film is the more active of the two. Umekichi is reactive, responding to things as they happen, while Omocha makes those things happen, often to benefit Umekichi (Omocha is always out for herself, as well). I don't know if it's a cultural thing, but I liked Omocha more than I liked her sister. As I say, though, Mizoguchi isn't choosing sides ... neither sister is able to escape their place in society.
If Mizoguchi takes a side, it's against the exploitation of women inherent in the system. Omocha rebels against that system; she also pays a bigger price than her sister in the end.
Isuzu Yamada plays Omocha. She was only 19 when the film was made, but she had already been in movies for six years. She was in several Kurosawa films I have seen, though admittedly I don't remember her. Yôko Umemura (Umekichi) was already in her 30s and had been in movies since the early-20s, although again, I haven't seen them. Both do good jobs here, but it's hard from the perspective of the U.S. in 2020 to ascertain just how good.
It's hard to find clips of Sisters of the Gion ... this video from YouTube claims to be a trailer, but it's actually the beginning of the movie, when a once-thriving businessman sits while his belongings are auctioned off. The clip is a nice example of Mizoguchi's love of long takes.