Thursday, March 31, 2011

5 Japanese Divas: Sisters of the Gion (Isuzu Yamada)

It is a case of good geisha-bad geisha. Omocha is definitely the bad one. Yet, for all her scheming, she is trapped in a man’s world, performing a subservient occupation. Considered a bold feminist statement for 1936 Japan as well as a turning point in his own career, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sisters of the Gion is a perfect showcase for his early muse, Isuzu Yamada, which fittingly screens during Film Forum’s tragically timely 5 Japanese Divas retrospective.

Traditional in her ways, Umekichi accepts her lot in life. In contrast, her younger sister Omocha overflows with contempt for the men who seek their company in Kyoto’s pleasure district. Adopting the strategy of exploiting their exploiters, she is not amused when Umekichi’s bankrupt patron moves in with them. Not one to suffer deadbeats gladly, she manipulates him into leaving with a vampishness worthy of a Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. However, she makes quite a few enemies in the process.

Gion is short but delicious, implying all sorts of mature situations going on off-screen. Yet, despite the confidence Yamada projects, leading us to suspect she will always land on her, um . . . feet, Mizoguchi pulls a naturalistic switcheroo in the third act. Omocha might be her own woman, but it is still a world not of her making.

There is no question Gion is Yamada’s film. She delivers her barbed lines with attitude that burns like acid, even through the subtitles. If not quite as radiantly beautiful as Setsuko Hara or Hideko Takamine (also featured in the 5 Divas series), it is easy to understand why so many men make monkeys of themselves over her throughout the film. Likewise, Yōko Umemura brings out a finely turned human dimension to her subservient sister Umekichi. This truly is a woman’s picture though, as the men are largely interchangeable old lechers.

Frankly, it is rather remarkable that Mizoguchi invites pre-war viewers to identify with such a morally flexible female protagonist. Bordering on film noir, Gion has been paired with Ozu’s Dragnet Girl for a thoroughly entertaining double feature next Monday (4/4). Indeed, Film Forum’s entire 5 Divas series is highly recommended, particularly Ozu’s Late Spring, Early Summer, and Tokyo Story, starring the incomparable Hara. It is also worth repeating, those so moved can support the Red Cross’ efforts in Japan here and find information on the Japan Society’s upcoming (4/9) Concert for Japan benefit here.