Ayako Wakao, Michiyo Kogure, Chieko Naniwa
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“A geisha never lies. Sweet-talk is our trade. We just agree with everything. Didn’t you know that?”
Just as she’s inquiring about a position at The House of Miyoharu, a teenaged woman named Eiko (Ayako Wakao) overhears these statements uttered by an esteemed geisha named Miyoharu (legendary actor Michiyo Kogure) right as she is rejecting one of her formerly regular – now deadbeat – suitors. Eiko is hoping to follow in the footsteps of her mother who has recently passed away, and is now seeking an apprenticeship (“maiko”) with Miyoharu in order to extract herself from a difficult situation with her lascivious uncle.
“To become as good as your mother requires work,” she is warned by the older woman. We then see Eiko undergo rigorous training in tea ceremony, dance and musicianship as well as industriously completing menial daily tasks such as laundry, mending and cleaning.
After a full year of training, she proves bright and industrious and therefore worthy of presentation to society – an expensive prospect for her mentor, who banks on it ultimately paying off in dividends (her cut). Thereafter, our heroine’s fortunes depend on whether or not she can land a regular client. Without financial backing – for all the expensive accoutrements, including a good kimono – her prospects are limited. But without a good kimono, she won’t gain good contracts.
For the official presentation (to society and prospective clients), the teahouse proprietor Okimi (Chieko Naniwa) advances Y300,000, Y200,000 of which buys Eiko’s first kimono. During the fitting, the tailor warns Eiko that no matter how hard she works, she’ll never pay back even a third of its price. It’s the typically Japanese way of masking (or cautioning against) pride with pessimism, yet we expect her to exceed expectations. Little does she realise the obligations of the loan…
It’s at this stage that Eiko adopts her professional name Miyoei. It’s only after she’s advanced to geisha status that our sweet but independently-minded heroine begins to question the injustices of her society as it pertains to her gender as well as her profession. Eiko openly challenges the dearth of their constitutional rights even as the geisha’s role is becoming degraded and devalued in postwar Japan.
Born in 1898, celebrated director Kenji Mizoguchi began his film career in the silent era and became known for his women’s films in the 1930s. A common theme in his films is a sympathy for the exploited and marginalised members of society, whether they be women, traveling artists, feudal servants or slaves. Additionally, the 1950s was a golden age for Japanese cinema, thanks to the relaxation of WW2-related animosity towards Japan paired with the impact that Japanese films, especially those of Akira Kurosawa, enjoyed on the international world stage. The codes of this mysterious culture must have seemed so exotic to Western audiences.
Along with Mt Fuji, geisha historically have been considered premier symbols of Japan’s beauty; living works of art. Mizoguchi’s perceptive film scrupulously charts the politics and nuances not only of this celebrated profession, but of contemporary (meaning 1950s) Japanese society. Most people today understand that a geisha was not always a prostitute. Historically, their profession has been elevated to the revered artistic status of highly skilled entertainer.
For the film, Matsutarō Kawaguchi adapted his novel in collaboration with esteemed screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda. The dialogue is frank and unfussy yet vivid in its depictions of life for women in post-war Kyoto.
But the story’s themes are profound. Kawaguchi and Yoda’s sensitivity to the plight of women in society is shrewdly and compassionately observed, and beautifully complemented by Mizoguchi’s sympathetic storytelling style. The performances from Ayako Wakao and Michiyo Kogure are astonishing for their expressive subtlety. Portraying Eiko, Wakao is exquisitely beautiful even before she transforms into the ultra-stylish fashion plate, adorned with intricate hairstyle, immaculate makeup and elegant kimono. A living artwork indeed! The complicated yet compassionate relationship between the two women is astutely presented.
The doll-like women are gorgeous, but the environment, and the way it is filmed, is realistically plain. It proves a matter-of-fact, practical presentation of a closeted world as viewed through the lens of Japan’s finest DoP Kazuo Miyagawa.
For A Geisha, the filmmaking team crafts a candid portrait infused with forward-thinking feminist themes of defying oppression through loyalty and sisterhood. The resulting film is an unflinching account of the complications endured by geisha in upholding and balancing their dignity, livelihood, and personal rights.