Sisters Of The Gion

Sisters Of The Gion

Static Mass Rating: 5/5

Original release: October 15th, 1936
Running time: 69 minutes

Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Writers: Kenji Mizoguchi, Yoshikata Yoda

Cast: Isuzu Yamada, Yoko Umemura, Benkei Shiganoya

It takes no longer than a few seconds to see innovative auteurship at work in Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sisters of the Gion. The film that was made in 1936 in the childhood of Japanese cinema opens with a beautiful long tracking shot. The camera slowly travels from left to right revealing an auction in progress. We first see the auctioneer’s assistants, busy with displaying various items for sale. We then move on to the auctioneer, eagerly scanning what turns out to be an excited crowd of bidders.

It all seems like a great event where everyone looks forward to the future cheerfully until the camera begins to turn at the end of its journey and the image gradually dissolves into the next scene where we meet the previous owner of the auctioned items; a newly bankrupt businessman Shimbei Furusawa (Benkei Shiganoya) facing a painful turning point in his life.

Sisters of the Gion

The camera continues to tell the story in a strongly visual manner throughout the film. This controlled and creative style is often interrupted by the camera simply lingering on a scene longer than usual, which reminded me of social realism and documentary genres and which I found interesting to watch.

The story of the film is no less worthy of command. The focus is on two sisters who work as geishas in Kyoto’s pleasure district Gion. Mizoguchi reveals a socially aware film through these two characters – and the differences between them – that pushed the rigid cultural boundaries of a pre-World War 2 Japan.

“Like Naniwa Elegy, the film makes use of current controversies, but few other Mizoguchi films are more blunt in displaying their social posturing, which here takes shape along the topics of societal obligation, money and romance. Nearly every scene in the film rings with a variation of this three-note chord.” [1]

It is the older sister Umekichi (Yoko Umemura) who confines herself to the value system imposed on the geisha and lets the former businessman and now homeless Furusawa into the house she shares with her younger sister Omocha (Isuzu Yamada). Omocha strongly disapproves of this gesture of loyalty and openly persuades her sister to use and take advantage of men – just as men do to them. But Umekichi is a firm believer in the geisha duties and Omocha soon decides to take control of the events around them by any means necessary.

I couldn’t help but wonder about the nature of the mind behind the male gaze in the Japan of 1936 when Sisters of the Gion was released there. What did men think of this film living in a culture that was traditionally oppressive towards women? The film can be read in different ways.

Sisters of the Gion

Omocha’s assertive and socially conscious personality seems a courageous display of feminism in such an early film, but she is not rewarded for this – far from it – the punishment is severe. Both Omocha and her sister end up in a bad place regardless of their approach to and relationships with men. I wonder what this meant to the audience – most of which consisted of men – living in that very same male dominated culture.

There is a strong sense of hopelessness in Sisters of the Gion. Two female leads, created to be the exact opposites of each other, are equally unable to achieve their goals. Omocha is the antagonist of this film throughout – making us wonder about the director’s intentions – her anger, frustration and pain expressed in the final scene is genuinely moving.

Right there and then, we forgave her the lies, the manipulation, the selfishness and feel sorry for her. In that memorable scene of desperation, Omocha is telling the truth about the world around her.

There are many memorable moments in Sisters of the Gion and it clearly has an element of daring feminism to it. In one scene Omocha talks to Kimura (Taizo Fukami) about a new kimono and she takes his cigarette from his hand only to put it straight back in his mouth after she finished with it. She gets angry with him and calls him dumb while manipulating him into submission without mercy. Yet feminism on display in a film does not necessarily make a feminist film.

Sisters of the Gion

It’s puzzling how ruthlessly Mizoguchi punishes his characters regardless of their contrasting personalities. Driven by curiosity, I soon found out how Mizoguchi tried to prevent actress Kinuyo Tanaka from becoming a film director. After having worked together on several films, Mizoguchi countered a recommendation from the Directors Guild of Japan in a vain attempt to prevent “his actress” from becoming an equal.

Japanese film theorist Tadao Sato describes Mizoguchi’s attidude towards women in a way that edges toward my own feelings after seeing this film:

“Sato defines “feminisuto” as a “special brand of Japanese feminism” and associates it especially with Mizoguchi. The “worship of womanhood” in which a woman’s suffering can “imbue admiration for a virtuous existence almost beyond our reach” [2]

This “special brand of feminism” is not necessarily feminism. It may have conveyed a point with some success when the film was released, but this is certainly not what I recognise as feminism in the 21st century. Worship does not equal respect and obsession does not equal love.


  • Kirihara, Donald Patterns of Time: Mizoguchi and the 1930s (1992) University of Wisconsin Press [1]
  • Russel, Cathrine The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity (2008) Duke University Press Books [2]

This inner conflict can be felt strongly in Sisters of the Gion. It’s made by an auteur who understands the social status of women and knows right from wrong, moral from immoral, but cannot make himself to fully embrace the ideals he knows he should. It is this genuine conflict within the mind of the director that makes Sisters of the Gion a tense and memorable film from the early days of Japanese cinema.

About Arpad Lukacs

Arpad Lukacs

Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.

Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.

Have a look at Arpad's photography site, and you can follow him on Twitter @arpadlukacs.