There were no pension plans or 401Ks for geishas and teahouse prostitutes in post-war Japan. Fortunately, Koen has one loyal patrons and plenty of other regular customers. It’s a living. In fact, she lives relatively free of regret and self-pity in Yuzo Kawashima’s Women Are Born Twice (a.k.a. A Geisha’s Diary), which screens as part of Yuzo Kawashima x Ayako Wakao, the Japan Society’s series of newly 4K-restored Kawashima films, starring the great Wakao.
Koen presents herself as a geisha, but there is little doubt how each night will end. It really is just a job to her, but Kiyomasa Tsutsui is special. The older gentleman is somewhat jealous of her legit lovers, but she always grants him top priority. Frankly, she is probably the top-earner in her house, but she still flirts with other men.
In one scene heavy with irony, Koen visits the controversial Yasukuni shrine with earnest young fellow from the neighborhood, feeling at peace there, even though it is not open to civilian bombing victims like her parents, just military personnel killed in action (including alleged war criminals). Indeed, Koen has a lot of reasons to be bitter, but she is practically Holly Golightly (who also hit movie screens in the same year, 1961).
Born Twice is extremely episodic. Men enter and exit Koen’s life without establishing themselves or getting a call-back, but that is how life is. It is really more about how she starts to assert greater control over her life, but it is a slow and subtle development. Yet, it doesn’t really matter, because Koen is such an irrepressibly resilient character to spend time with.
Wakao’s Koen is a complex, multidimensional, acutely human figure. She is also deeply vulnerable and stunningly luminous. Somehow, she develops a unique rapport with her dozen or so male co-stars, even the ones whose characters quickly washout. In many ways, her performance ranks up there with the incomparable Hideko Takamine in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (in which Takamine’s bar-owning Keiko Mama-san is marginally more respectable, but is forced to assume exponentially more debt).
Kawashima & co-screenwriter Toshiro Ide’s adaptation of Tsuneo Tomita’s novel does not follow along an orderly straight line, but viewers will certainly feel like they have lived a lot of life with Koen by the time it reaches its conclusion. Any film that makes that kind of emotional connection should be savored. Very highly recommended, Women Are Born Twice screens this Saturday (12/2) and Sunday (12/3) at the Japan Society, as part of the Yuzo Kawashima x Ayako Wakao mini-retrospective.