Saturday, February 6, 2010

#4: Critics of Tradition: "Sisters of the Gion" (1936) and "Harakiri" (1962)

Sisters of the Gion (Gion no shimai), directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, and Harakiri (Seppuku), directed by Masaki Kobayashi, are two Japanese films that take a critical look at Japanese traditions that seem -for Westerners, at least- to be unquestioned, defnitive aspects of Japanese culture.

Poster sources: here and here.

Though the films are set in different centuries -Harakiri is set the 17th century and Sisters of Gion is set around 1936 - they both depict the breakdown of tradition during times of hardship in Japan's history. One film takes on the geisha establishment, while the other criticizes strict adherence to bushido. Both films feature a character who follows traditional rules and suffers, and another character who fights back and exploits the system. However, despite the negative perspectives these films display, they do posess vitality in storytelling and strong emotional appeal.

Sisters of the Gion (Gion no shimai) focuses on two sisters who are impoverished geisha in Kyoto's Gion district: the traditional and soft-spoken Umekichi (YĆ“ko Umemura), and the more modern-minded and abrasive Omocha (the luminous Isuzu Yamada). Umekichi's client Furusawa (Benkei Shiganoya) asks for her help when he becomes bankrupt and leaves his wife. Omocha finds this exploitative and impractical. She tries to drive Umekichi away from Furusawa while searching for wealthier patrons for her sister and herself. Yet society isn't kind to geisha of little reputation, and Omocha's manipulations soon catch up to her.

Harakiri (Seppuku) is told partly through story flashback. As warrior clans are broken up and former samurai are thrown into poverty, the samurai Hanshiro Tsugumo (the legendary Tatsuya Nakadai) asks for permission to enter a daimyo home in order to honorably commit suicide. The nobles of the house are wary of this request, though, and we see the story of a younger warrior (Shima Iwashita) who had begged for work from the house.  Little do the nobles know what Hanshiro is truly seeking...

One might too simply separate Harakiri and Sisters of the Gion as male-centered action film vs. female-centered melodrama. Yet both have very intense scenes that sell some incredibly heightened situations and agendas. Both films also feature elegant compositions in black-and-white. Mizoguchi floods the sparse scenes with.sumptuous light, while Kobayashi clearly lineates the scenes for the action to come. Sisters of the Gion is more consistent in tone, since Harakiri's flashback device takes up a large chunk of time after the relatively long (and dialogue-heavy initial set-up . However, the long periods of dialogue and flashback in Harakiri effectively build up motive and intensity for the the oncoming action.

I would suggest watching Sisters of the Gion first, since it is shorter and might underwhelm after the brutal violence in Harakiri. It also helps builds up this progression: "life looks tough for women in the 1930's, especially geisha, and oh look it was tough for samurai too, even in more traditional times! whoa!"

Both films are great recommendations for those interested in Japan, especially for those who over-romanticize Japanese history and culture. They also offer damning critiques of society and gender roles, with strong plots and vivid characters. The last lines of Sisters of the Gion and one suicide scene in Harakiri will stay in my mind forever.

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Harakiri can be viewed online via The Auteurs. (source)

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