A GEISHA (Japan / 1953)
The transitional nature of postwar Japanese society was one of the key thematic concerns of domestic filmmakers at the time. In A Geisha (Gion bayashi), which is set in the Gion district of Kyoto and is also known as "Gion Festival Music," Mizoguchi Kenji takes us into the world of the geisha, where the traditional values were also in the process of being negotiated at the hands of modernity. Similar to the director's earlier Sisters of the Gion (1936), the film deals with the lives of two women, a 16-year-old runaway named Eiko (Wakao Ayako, Street of Shame ) and a successful but aging geisha Miyoharu (Kogure Michiyo, Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice ), who ends up taking on the young "orphan" as an apprentice. Mizoguchi credibly charts the duo's differing ideologies and ethics as they find themselves adrift in the treacherous new world that calls into question the very meaning of their profession (a true geisha, by definition, is a "performing artist," not a prostitute). Consequently, Eiko's preconceived romanticism suffers just as much as Miyoharu's stoic independence. However, the film gains its emotional undercurrent from the bond which gradually develops between the two; Miyoharu ends up assuming the role of a friend, a sister and a mother, knowing full well the pitfalls which await Eiko if she didn't. Mizoguchi's spatial dynamics keenly convey an enclosing world that offers no respite to its victims. Yet at the same time, with his employment of traveling shots -- which according to his DP at Daiei, Miyagawa Kazuo (Ugetsu ), confirmed a shift from the director's depth-of-field approach in order to accommodate his storytelling techniques in the '50s -- Mizoguchi uncommonly hints toward a stance of defiance. Adapted from a novel by Kawaguchi Matsutarô, who collaborated with Mizoguchi on a number of occasions, A Geisha however lacks the depth and scope of Naruse's similarly themed Flowing (1956). But this beautifully acted effort is more emotionally reserved (i.e., less overtly melodramatic) than the infinitely popular Sansho the Bailiff (1954), the film Mizoguchi made next.