Sisters of the Gion 祇園の姉妹 (1936)


Following up on yesterday, today we have another Kenji Mizoguchi film, from the same year, and again focusing on the hard lives of women.

Two prostitutes, sisters, are contrasted with each other.  The older is loyal and kind, while the younger looks out only for her own and tries to get everything she can out of her clients.

At the beginning of the film the younger is already involved with a clerk at a clothing merchant’s.  But when his boss finds out about a kimono the young clerk gave her, he goes to see her.  Sensing her opportunity the younger sister quickly trades up and gets the boss to become her patron.  The clerk doesn’t give up so easily, and in a confrontation with the three of them, she rejects him and the boss fires him.  Eventually the spurned clerk catches up with her though, and does her violence (along with telling his boss’s wife about the affair).  In the hospital she’s scolded by her elder sister, and told that this is the natural result of only trying to take advantage of men.

Based on the younger’s story, it would seem that this film could almost be a warning against taking feminism too far, becoming militantly anti-men.  But now let us look at the elder’s.

At the beginning of the film the elder sister is involved with a formerly wealthy businessman who has gone bankrupt.  His wife leaves for their family home, but he lingers on in the city, even moving in with the sisters.  He can’t offer her anything, but she is happy just to have him around.  The younger sister, however, operating behind her sister’s back, forces him out and sets her sister up with a rich man who is interested in her.  The older sister wants nothing to do with him though, and leaves her sister to go move in with the man she loves and has been involved with over such a long time.  He, in turn, welcomes her and promises never to abandon her.  But, while she is out seeing her sister at the hospital, he finds out that his wife found him a good job out at their family home and leaves.  His only message to the older sister is to find a better patron than himself.

Interestingly, at the end of the film, neither sister regrets anything.  The elder is happy to have done all she could to help the man she loves, and the younger is more certain than ever of the wickedness of men, and is bent on continuing to use them for all their worth.  However, the final scene is a short monologue of the younger lamenting about the hard, unfair life of prostitutes, and wishing that such an occupation didn’t exist.

The film’s position on prostitutes, then, is that it is a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation for them.  If they try to be moral they live in poverty (along with still being viewed as immoral by most), and if they spurn all morality people feel that they are the lowest of the low and deserve any horrible thing that happens to them.  It may not be very deep, but I believe the film’s message is simply what it says it is:  prostitution is bad.  Whenever things go south, it is invariably the prostitutes who will suffer the most, while the men will go about their lives affected significantly less, if at all.

As a final note of interest, once again there are absolutely no sympathetic male characters.  I thought that it was going to be different this time, as both the clerk and the bankrupt businessman were shown with a sort of boyish innocence, but the clerk winds up attacking the younger sister, and the businessman lies to and abandons the older.  All of the other men are shown to be interested only in themselves and their own pleasure, and are easily conned and manipulated by the younger sister.

I can’t help but thinking that such films wouldn’t get made today.  Even the most feminist film tends to include at least one sympathetic male character.  He is the embodiment of what men are supposed to be, and often serves as a way for one of the female characters to find happiness.  Even if they don’t choose him, much of the audience will be left thinking, “Well, you should have just picked that nice guy.”  And that is his most important function, it allows the viewer to leave feeling OK, thinking that things will be alright as long as you aren’t too greedy and make the best choices for yourself.  But this and Naniwa Elegy leaves you with no such option; you can’t think of an easy way out for the main characters, there are no savior men to be found anywhere in their lives.  They seemed destined to suffer, and you go away from the experience unhappy and unsatisfied.  Those are the kind of films that mean something, because it is only those sorts of feelings that will ever lead people to making any changes to their lives or their society.

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