Last night, I watched Kenji Mizoguchi's A Geisha, aka Gion Bayashi.
It is a great and heartbreaking film, sad without being sentimental.
I’ve started to like Mizoguchi. So far I’ve seen 3 films: this one and Ugetsu Monogatari are great; Miss Oyu is also very good, and deeply sad (I just don’t really like the ending and the face of the actress playing Oyu).
Over time, I might even prefer Mizoguchi to Kurosawa. In the West, Kurosawa has always been more renowned and popular, with an enormous influence; his greatness is undeniable; Ran and The Bad Sleep Well will always remain my personal favourites (The Bad Sleep Well is simply perfect). However, Kurosawa can sometimes be rather didactic and sentimental. One of his worst films is Dreams, which, visually dazzling as it is, feels contrived, falsely coherent, and intolerably preachy—going against the nature of dreams. Not only so, I’m one of the few people who love Kurosawa but don’t like the acclaimed Ikiru: it’s great until the death of the protagonist; the sequence at the funeral is too lengthy and repetitive to be effective and moving, after a while, it all becomes false.
When I watched Ugetsu, Miss Oyu and then A Geisha, there was not a false note. A Geisha touched the depths of my soul—the story of the 2 geisha is haunting.
I’ve noticed a few things about Mizoguchi:
1/ He likes long takes, and a moving camera.
2/ He rarely uses close-ups, though it could be a Japanese thing—I hardly see close-ups in Kurosawa and Ozu either, I’m not sure about other directors in that period like Hiroshi Teshigahara or Shohei Imamura.
3/ It looks like he moves the actors around in a scene, and then moves the camera accordingly.
Mizoguchi’s A Geisha reminds me of how much I hated Memoirs of a Geisha.
1/ Think about it: Memoirs of a Geisha is a Hollywood film about geisha, in which the 3 leading geisha roles go to 2 Chinese actresses (Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li) and a Chinese Malaysian actress (Michelle Yeoh), and all dialogue is in English. Generally speaking, to Westerners, Asians look all the same, but it really bugs me because as an Asian, I can tell that Chinese and Japanese people have different facial expressions, gestures and mannerisms. I’m also too familiar with Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi to convince myself to accept them as geisha.
In addition, for a film that does a lot of explaining about the whole geisha tradition, they get lots of things wrong regarding hairstyles and makeups, which is better explained here: https://culturedid.wordpress.com/2016/09/18/memoirs-of-a-geisha-what-they-got-wrong-and-what-they-got-right/
When some people get offended about white people wearing dreadlocks or cornrows, or wearing kimono, and call it cultural appropriation, I see it as a trifle, a non-problem, because it doesn’t affect anyone—the concept of cultural appropriation is nonsensical, in my opinion. But it’s different in the case of Memoirs of a Geisha. I don’t care that the director’s a white American; I despise it because of the inaccuracies, the wrong facial expressions and mannerisms, the misrepresentation, and the apparent carelessness and lack of respect. Nobody said a word about the America in Brokeback Mountain, nor the England in Sense and Sensibility, even though the director is Ang Lee, a Taiwanese.
On my course, a guy made a short documentary called Kungfu Postman. The guy in the film does karate; when it’s pointed out that kung fu and karate were different things, the director said the guy did lots of things: karate, judo, etc. With all due respect, and I think the director’s a nice guy, I hate that thoughtless attitude—karate and judo are Japanese, kung fu is Chinese, you can’t casually lump them together as “well, Asian… same thing”.
2/ Memoirs of a Geisha obsessively follows the character’s training, her dance lessons, her getting dressed and wearing make-ups, the seductive charm of geisha—living works of art…
A Geisha has none of that glamour. I was initially surprised to see that Mizoguchi didn’t really bother about a maiko’s training (maiko is an apprentice geisha). There’s no need. He’s interested in the soul of his characters, in the restrictions imposed on “the symbol of femininity in Japan”, in the difficulties of geisha and their struggle to maintain dignity and personal rights. It is very Japanese, but at the same time, also universal.
Memoirs of a Geisha, at the core, is a conventional, formulaic love story. The problems of its characters are surface-level, there can be some very visually satisfying scenes such as the dance scenes but all the stuff about geisha seem to be there like a fetish—something foreign, something exotic. The conflicts are Hollywood (after all, it’s based on a novel written by another white man). Why some people like it, I don’t understand—it’s empty, and banal.