Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sisters of the Gion

Hey hey friends, midterms are OVER!!! Got another gem from my Japanese cinema class that I recently discovered was on youtube in its entirety, so here's some more vintage Japanese cinema for ya'll and it's a talkie this time. Allow me to introduce Kenji Mizoguchi's Sisters of the Gion. 


It's about 70 minutes and quite nicely remastered with English subtitles! The story tells the tale of two sisters who live in the Gion pleasure district in Kyoto in 1936. One sister is caring and compassionate but ultimately romantic to a fault and the other is jaded and unscrupulous and takes advantage of her would-be patrons at every turn. Both end up in rough situations in the end, with the romantic woman abandoned by the man she stuck by despite criticism from others and the pragmatic woman getting injured by a vengeful former patron that she took advantage of.

The two sisters, romantic and traditional Umekichi and modern and pragmatic Omocha.  
So let's talk subtext! I was at my tutorial on Friday and we students were asked to pick the film apart which we did like vultures on carrion! (Eww. . .)

So the two sisters are Umekichi and Omocha, Umekichi is the older of the two and is portrayed as embodying many of the traditional traits that would have been most commonly associated with women at the time. She has a sense of obligation to her patrons, especially the man who helped her become an established Geisha, (the same man who eventually abandons her) she's loyal, believes in tradition, and treats her patrons with warmth and respect, and she's always wearing a kimono. Her vice appears to be that she has no ambition or initiative and is content to stay where she is in her life, which is poor and dependent on others. Her younger sister Omocha is quite the opposite. She is younger, much more driven, is often seen wearing western clothes and will not hesitate to exploit certain people to get what she needs. Her justification is that the geisha system is messed up anyway, men are all pigs and you might as well just take what you need from them and move on to the next one. Her vices are pragmatism and materialism. In many ways Umekichi represents the traditional woman and Omocha represents the "new" woman, two paradigms that were popularly explored in those days.

Omocha in her "western" garb.
 Beyond gender archetypes it is my opinion that these characters are also allegories for the divergent approaches to Japan's development in the 1930's. So what was going on in Japan in those days?

Well in 1936 Japan had more or less consolidated its empire. It had quite some time ago, effectively "modernized" it's government, military and infrastructure and had a number of colonial efforts in the works. By this time Korea had been officially part of the Japanese empire for 26 years and a number of South East Asian countries had also felt the brunt of Japanese colonizing efforts. While these things were going on abroad, all manner of folks back in Japan were starting to look inward at their own identity wondering how all this modernization, expansion and whatnot had affected it. The popular question of the day seemed to be along the lines of:

What did it mean to be Japanese in an ever-expanding empire (one that was expanding to include those not ethnically Japanese) and what was the future of Japan?

Well it would seem to me that Kenji Mizoguchi decided to put fourth his two sense by using Umekichi and Omacha to represent two of the diverging and popular mentalities of the time.

Umekichi in her Kimono (left) and Omocha in her modern clothes (right)
Umekichi is representative of a popular notion at the time, that Japan and Japanese people ought to preserve a strict sense of identity through the preservation of tradition in order to bolster a concrete sense of what it meant to be Japanese and what it meant to be not. There was at this time a popular sense of national nostalgia among many Japanese, perhaps a yearning for simpler times when what was "Japanese" and what was "foreign" was much easier to discern, before the introduction of "modern" and "foreign" technologies. However, Umekichi ultimately suffers because she is not able to move past her current situation and ends up being quite literally left behind. Perhaps a metaphor for what might have happened to Japan if they had decided not to "modernize with the rest of the world" so to speak.

Omocha, on the other hand is representative of the more militant, pragmatic and in a manner of speaking, materialistic elements of the Japanese empire at the time. She can often be seen wearing more "western" or "modern" clothes; she uses her role as a geisha to seduce and exploit people until they are no longer of use to her, and she appears to have an insatiable urge for advancement. At the time many Japanese scholars were regularly researching and experimenting with various models of government, education and technology thought to have come from Europe and North America; oversees, the empire's military apparatuses were governing and acquiring many additional territories and often exploiting them for both human and natural resources; and overall the Empire of Japan seemed to be obsessed with continuous, uninhibited development. However in the film, Omocha's character also meets with a sorry end by being ejected from a moving taxi and sustaining severe injuries at the hands of a vengeful patron.

The tragic endings of the two sisters, one bed-ridden with injuries and the other pining for a lost love - incidentally, despite being a pre-war film, this situation eerily reflects Japan's state right after the war.
It seems to me (as of right now at least) that through this film's subtext Mizoguchi was attempting to indicate that there were two popular extremes being realized in Japan at the time and fully committing to either would prove disastrous. On the one side, losing the nation in tradition and cultural stagnation would result in national complacency and Japan would inevitably get left behind by other ever-advancing societies.

On the other side, assuming that this is indeed the intended message it's quite alarming when you consider that Omacha, as an allegory for Japanese militarism was physically damaged at the end of the film and then contrast that with the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki 10 years after this film was made. It's almost like Mizoguchi unintentionally predicted the future to some degree - rather mind-blowing isn't it?

Still I do have to urge that this is only MY interpretation of the film and is certainly not authoritative, so feel free to derive your own meaning from the film and share it with your friends or whomever! On the surface this film is still an interesting portrait of modern, post-war Japan so if your not a huge fan of reading into things then its still very much enjoyable from a completely literal point of view.

Still film analysis can be fun and is good for your brain - yay critical thinking!   

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