"How American Intellectuals Learned to Love Ozu," by Mindy Aloff, April 1994, The New York Times
In this article, Mindy Aloff investigates how American audiences have responded to Ozu since the 1950s, when his works became available in the United States. Aloff asks what attracts Americans to Ozu's body of film, and discovers a number of possible reasons. While Ozu's films are not widespread in the U.S., a few New York City venues continue to present his surviving films at special screenings. These screenings draw a diverse viewership with a variety of reasons for liking Ozu's films. Some identify Ozu with the New York City art scene, especially when he became noticed alongside revolutionary directors like Godard and Antonioni. Others cite the surprisingly powerful emotional impact of his artfully understated films as the main reason for their fascination with his work. Still others are attracted to the Western aspect of his quiet, simple films, which admittedly were influenced greatly by Griffith and Harold Lloyd. The simplicity and familiarity of his films rendered them accessible and engaging to the Western audience. The moralistic themes and subtle humor of Ozu's films are also universally appealing regardless of the era in which they are viewed.
This article is significant to my study of Ozu through his film Passing Fancy primarily because it discusses the western association of his films. It reinforces the idea that Ozu was not a unitary, uninfluenced figure in filmmaking, but a simultaneously impressionable and original director who adapted what he learned from western films to direct and write his own. It also helps us better understand the source of the humor in Passing Fancy. Comedies are said to typically not translate well across cultures--this is not the case with Ozu's comedies (Passing Fancy among them), which do not rely on the audience's prior understanding of Japanese culture of language to make their unsophisticated jokes and visual gags. It is in part the western association that so many have made with Ozu's work that renders it successful among foreign audiences.
Powell, Brian. "The Samurai Ethic in Mayama Seika's Genroku Chushingura." Modern Asian Studies. 18.4 (1984): 725-745.
This article explains the approach Japanese playwright Mayama Seika took in writing his version of the forty seven ronin. He ensured that the audience would learn in great detail about the events of 1703 and even went as far as to cite his sources during the play. He also explained how the actions of the forty seven ronin fit in with Japanese law at the time.
To strenghten my argument, I compared Mizoguchi's version of the story to the play version written by Mayama Seika. In the analysis written by Brian Powell, the only deviation from the story that occured between the two was Seika's insertion of a few scenes that more than likely, did not take place. The goal of Seika's work, as was Mizoguchi's, was to portray the life and values of the samurai and ultimately, build up sympathy and pride for the way the samurai exacted their revenge.
Richie, Donald. Japanese Cinema: Film Style and National Character.New York: Doubleday, 1971.
In this examination of Japanese cinema, Richie relates the films to the other art forms, and the traditions and attitudes of the Japanese people. The book discusses not only discusses directors as Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, but also the popular films as well. It establishes the historical basis for the important post-war films that first brought Japanese cinema to the mainstream. Above all, this book explores the unique vision of the Japanese filmmakers, the vision 'which is the aesthetic of Japan - and which has created some of the most beautiful and truthful films ever made."
Richie's analysis provides great insight into the influence Japanese attitudes and traditions had on Japanese cinema during the time of Mizoguchi. It helps explain why the story of the 47 ronin is constantly being remade and keeping its place in Japanese culture. Again, the driving element of the film is the story of the ronin and their importance to Japanese culture to this day.
Standish, Isolde. "Chushingura and the Japanese Studio System." Japan Forum. 17.1 (2005): 69-86
This article locates the Chushingura narrative within the studio system as the story chosen for all-star studio celebration productions to mark special events (kinen eiga), and examines the narrative's relation to the studio star system. The main question addressed is: how have established narrative conventions of the drama been manipulated to remain fresh to each viewing generation?
This article helps explain the popularity of the 47 ronin narrative in Japanese culture and refutes any claim that the film was made to boost the Japanese war effort. It's appeal at the time and still today, is the "tragic hero" aspect of the samurai and their dedication to the samurai code.
Richie, Donald and Joseph L. Anderson. "Traditional Theater and the Film in Japan." Film Quarterly. 12.1 (1958): 2-9.
This article discusses the influence Japanese theatre had on the country's film industry. However, it singles out The Last Forty Seven Ronin as one of the rare films to have the Kabuki theatre influence. Although they come from the same story, Mizoguchi's film version is much more realisitic than the original Kabuki plays.
The fact that this article describes the influence of Kabuki theater on Mizoguchi's film shows that there was no intent to change the story to conform to the nationalistic feelings of World War II Japan. Even when it differs in its portrayal of reality, the film is much more a historical epic than a war propaganda effort. The realistic movements of the actors break away from traditional Kabuki theater and give a much more modern feel to Mizoguchi's picture.
"Kenji Mizoguchi." Encylopedia of World Biography. 2004
This is a encylopedia article on the life and career of Kenji Mizoguchi. It explains hows Mizoguchi's version delves into explorations of the samurai code, its ceremonies and obligations. It also mentions that Mizoguchi's wife was committed to a mental asylum during filming. The article explains how Mizoguchi's belief of pathos lead him to emphasize punishment over triumph by neglecting to show the violent revenge of the ronin and instead, showing their death.
This article is helpful in showing how Mizoguchi's beliefs and the events going on in his life at the time affected the way he remade the story. The fact that the film explores the oblligations and ceremonies of the samurai code explains why the main theme of the story was the way of the samurai and not an attempt to boost morale of the Japanese soldiers during World War II.
While this article refers to a movement that began shortly after Ozu released Passing Fancy (1934), it may be useful for understanding the “Japanese” quality that many attribute to Ozu's films. Passing Fancy might be considered a precursor to the “monumental film” movement that Davis describes. It practices a number of the stylistic innovations that the “monumental” films later employed, among them long takes and slow camera movements. More importantly, it contains a mostly premodern narrative focused on traditional Japanese living. In this sense, we might understand Ozu's sensibilities expressed in Passing Fancy as setting or helping to establish a trend in which Japanese filmmakers made special effort to embody a “Japanese” aura.
Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, p.248-252 by David Bordwell, 1988
This chapter of David Bordwell's Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema describes how the details of Ozu's Degigokoro (“Passing Fancy”) unify the film's disjointed narrative. The narrative itself, which Bordwell contends is divided into two main stories, is loosely structured and driven mostly by Ozu's characterization of the two main characters, Kihachi and his son Tomio. The relationship between Kihachi, an irresponsible, simpleminded adult, and Tomio, a mature, intelligent child, is the primary story. The second storyline involves Kihachi's hopeless attempts to woo a girl while his son deals with criticisms of his father by his classmates. Bordwell notes that the film's other characters are fairly stereotypical and undeveloped; this simultaneous depiction of character depth and superficiality is a sign of Ozu's ability to combine unlike conventions in the overarching structure of the film. Bordwell then discusses the playful use of gestural motifs—scratching, swatting, poking—to characterize the different characters and their attitudes towards one another throughout the film. This sort of attention to detail, he contends, marks Passing Fancy a particularly realistic Ozu film. He goes on to argue, however, that the unrealistic, often misleading use of intertitles, spatial patterns, and unusual transitions for comedic effect prevent the audience from even greater immersion in the otherwise quite realistic film.
This analysis of Passing Fancy is important because it emphasizes the versatility of Ozu's techniques and rejects allegations that Ozu was overly repetitive. Ozu was not constrained to a mere realistic approach: his attention to details evoked realism, but he used other techniques that shattered the illusion of realism, often for comedic effect. He did not adhere very closely to particular patterns, and his film thus displays a sense of playfulness throughout a narrative that, in the words of Bordwell, “plays by its own rules, even if it changes them at will.”
Transcendental Style in Film, Chapter 2, by Paul Schrader, 1988
In this chapter, Paul Schrader characterizes the films of Yasujiro Ozu as fundamentally transcendental works and attempts to map Zen principles onto Ozu's filmmaking techniques. Schrader begins by qualifying Zen art as a form of transcendentalism for its spiritual focus and merging of sacred and secular spheres. Ozu, whose traditionalistic themes and style have led many regard him as Japan's “most Japanese” director, had an easier time adapting transcendentalist principles to film than many western filmmakers because its ideas were already fixed in oriental culture. To properly convey his themes in film, however, Ozu had to overcome opposing Western cinematic trends. Despite this reactionary aspect of Ozu's work, Schrader describes him as “cinema's consummate formalist,” more of a craftsman than an expressive artist: he consistently focused on the same themes, relied on the same actors and crew, and used the same types of shots and editing patterns throughout his films. Schrader draws parallels between this repetitive approach to filmmaking and the repetitive, ritualistic aspect of Zen art. Similarly, Ozu aims to capture the concept of “emptiness” or “the void” in the many silences, pauses, and slow contemplative scenes of his films, a preoccupation that has long informed Zen artwork. Finally, Ozu's family comedies and melodramas often deal with communication failure between man and his environment. These films consistently advocate oneness and unity in the face of our changing and unbalanced environment. Both of these ideas are central to Zen philosophy.
This article is useful because it highlights the paradoxical nature of Ozu's work: Ozu was reactionary in his techniques, rejecting many western film conventions, but only so that he could express Japanese fundamentalist ideas. Schrader holds that many of these reactionary techniques were in fact based on traditionalist techniques that guided Zen art. This no doubt helped Ozu earn his reputation as Japan's “most Japanese” director, but it also complicates any notion that classifies his work as distinctly conservative or traditionalist. Passing Fancy exhibits this contradiction nicely. Artistically it is very unlike western films, focusing on pauses, repetition of the same motifs and shots, and inviting the audience’s detached contemplation (much like the Zen art that Schrader claims informs it). It uses these new techniques in order to focus on the traditional Japanese home and quietly lament the encroaching modern world.
The Problem of Japaneseness in Ozu, by Daniel Hui, April 22, 2000
In this blog Daniel Hui challenges film critics who have called Ozu Japan's “most Japanese” director. This designation is problematic because it is based on a number of flawed presuppositions that are required to characterize Ozu's work as especially “Japanese.” First, it ascribes a distinct Japanese national identity to film, an originally western phenomenon. Because film form was developed in the west, Hui argues, it cannot be well defined in Japanese terms. Secondly, the classification of Ozu's work as particularly “Japanese” requires that this Japanese cinema be defined by older Japanese artistic forms (kabuki theater, Zen painting, etc.) that are only marginally applicable to film. Here we find another limitation: the “Japanese” qualities of these older arts could only be analyzed and defined in western terms, since it was exposure to the west that forced Japan to define its own culture. Finally, the “Japanese” designation mistakenly assumes that as an auteur, Ozu exercised unchanging control over the artistic expression of each of his films. Hui argues that Ozu was not so unimpressionable—his early films, for example, were strongly influenced by the sweeping changes to reflect Hollywood production that were occurring in Japanese film studios after the Kanto earthquake of 1923. Attempts to unify Ozu's body of films often oversimplify the director's range of work, ignoring the films that are clearly influenced by Hollywood films or inconveniently diverge from his typical style. Moreover, Ozu's tendency to establish norms within his films and then purposely undermine them renders such a “typical style” even harder to define. Ozu may have tried to construct a unified body of work, Hui states, “but this body is fractured, irregular, and impossible to read.” All critics seem to agree, however (Hui included), that Ozu's films attempt to represent “everyday life.” Hui contends that this focus on the everyday, not some abstract artistic construction, is ultimately what accounts for the “Japanese-ness” that so many claim to detect in his films. Because Japanese life changed over the course of Ozu's career, Hui concludes, so then did Ozu's films.
This article not only contradicts notions that Ozu was a fundamentalist/traditionalist director, but undermines my attempts to classify him at all. In suggesting that Ozu created a dynamic body of film with many influences rather than a repetitive, thematically and stylistically static one, Hui rejects the “consummate fundamentalist” description posited by other Ozu scholars. Hui goes to claim that a unifying theme characterizing all of Ozu's work is impossible to locate given Ozu's unclear assessment of his own films and his tendency to break from his own established patterns. Unfortunately, this approach was the aim of my research—I had hoped to use Passing Fancy as an indicator of Ozu's traditionalism or progressivism as a director. There may be hope for my project, however, in the one area that this article is consistent with others: its acknowledgment that all of Ozu's films represent everyday life. Hui notes that Ozu's films change to reflect the changing of everyday Japanese life. This is certainly a key idea in Passing Fancy, where a stubborn, uneducated father struggles to keep up with the changing world. In this sense, Ozu might be best described not simply as focusing on traditional aspects of Japanese life; rather, he focuses on contemporary life, and adapts his style to reflect its changes.
Ozu's Anti-Cinema, Chapter 3, by Yoshida Kiju, 1998
This chapter of Yoshida Kiju's book Ozu's Anti-Cinema deals with the amazing thematic consistency demonstrated throughout Ozu's expansive body of film. Yoshida remarks that this consistency is particularly surprising given the tumultuous era in which they were directed. Ozu was not isolated from the events and circumstances of the day either: he served in the military twice, once as a soldier at the beginning of Japan's invasion of China in 1937 and again as a director for the Information Department of the Japanese military in 1943. Somehow, however, he kept his wartime and postwar films strikingly unrelated to the social and political context of war and postwar Japan. For instance, in 1939 and 1942, times of intense war fever and militarism in Japan, Ozu directed quiet family dramas (There Was a Father) and urban comedies (The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice). Indeed, The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice was deemed so inappropriate to the national wartime milieu and unconducive to the war effort that it was forced to stop production and was not released until 1952. In these sorts of family dramas and comedies, Ozu repeatedly made the same social observations, often about the unconscious acceptance of family roles, the meanings of family ritual, and the inherent disorder of the world. Yoshida maintains that Ozu's simple, consistent presentation of these themes was an attempt to make honest order of the chaotic world as he perceived it. He rejected hidden meanings and considered symbolic likening of images and ideas to be horribly banal and disingenuous.
This article is a significant study of Ozu's auteurism because it demonstrates how he was a simultaneously progressive and conservative director. Ozu was thematically quite conservative, choosing to deal with traditional ideas like social structure and family relationships rather than the more contemporary ones posed by Japan's expansionism and militarization. However, Yoshida suggests that Ozu could be considered a progressive because his films so blatantly ignore their socio-political context and focus so heavily on domestic relationships that they seem to be peaceful antiwar statements. This could explain why Passing Fancy, a film released in 1933 and coinciding with growing Japanese militarization and expansion, makes literally no reference to the events of the “outside world” and remains so squarely focused on the quiet domestic relationship of a father and son in an unnamed Japanese town.
"Against Modernism, in Favor of Tofu: Three Silent Comedies by Ozu" by Clifford Hilo, May 2008
In this essay, occasioned by the re-release of three Ozu silent comedies (Passing Fancy, Tokyo Chorus, I Was Born, But..) on DVD, Clifford Hilo reflects on what made Ozu such a unique director. He attempts to reconcile two contradictory perspectives on the director: the western notion that Ozu was the definitive Japanese modernist, versus the Japanese perspective that he was Japan's most traditional director. Hilo contends that Ozu was neither modernist nor strict traditionalist. Rather, his stylistic idiosyncrasies that many took for “modernism” were simply intended to preserve a fluidity throughout his simple, lighthearted films. The free-flowing, loose form of Ozu's films, he offers, is “more about film pleasure than the hard disruption of forms devouring themselves.” The beauty of Ozu's work is in the details. In this sense, Hilo considers Ozu akin to a comic strip writer such as Charles Schultz for his ability to capture the essence of an image in its minute details. He also notes the western influences that have found their way into Ozu's films, among them the skillfully-conveyed social humor of Ernst Lubitsch, the sight gags of Chaplin, and the charming child-based humor of Hal Roach's Little Rascals. Hilo concludes by remarking that although the drama of Ozu's films was always uncomplicated and close to home, Ozu drew deeply from his repertory of detailed images and simple jokes to drive “the larger gears of melodrama.”
This commentary helps us understand Passing Fancy, one of Ozu's later silent comedies, by noting the trends that run throughout his other dramatic family comedies. In particular, it refutes the notion that Ozu was Japan's consummate modernist filmmaker by explaining how his idiosyncrasies served the intended continuity and playful simplicity of his films, not a progressive artistic sensibility. Many of these are evident in Passing Fancy, among them the use of low-level, direct shots interspersed with quick inserts to draw attention to comedic details. As Hilo argues, each one of these techniques ultimately maintains a sense of uncomplicated narrative continuity.
"The Production of Modernity in Japanese Cinema: Shochiku Kamata Style in the 1920s and 1930s" by Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, May 2000
In this chapter, Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano discusses a Japanese film style known as katamacho and its implications for the Japanese conception of modern mass culture. First she stresses the need to draw a distinction between two Japanese words for modernism (“modanisumu” and “kindaishugi”), something that previous scholars have failed to do. “Modanisumu,” she explains, entails a sort of levity, cheerfulness, and novelty, while “kindaishugi” suggests “both positive and negative connotations created by European rationalism.” Our use of the word “modernism” for characterizing Japanese film is further complicated by the fact that most discourses on Japanese/western relations are dominated by Western perspectives. Marciano then describes how the plural meanings of “modernism” are equally deployed in Japanese katamacho film. The katamacho film Our Neighbor Ms. Yae, for example, uses the progressive, light conception of modernism (“modanisumu”) to subordinate certain other aspects of modernism (“kindaishugi”) that threaten the Japanese social order. Katamacho films often appear modern in their use of subjective gazes in the style of other forms of mass modern culture. Marciano contends that this is a result of a sort of inferiority complex among Japanese filmmakers who were attempting to break away from the stereotype that Japanese cinema was a poor imitation of western films and a “low form” of modern culture. Katamachi-style film in particular seemed to align itself European culture to improve the reputation of Japanese film.
This article is helpful to my research because it helps characterize the types of films that were being released simultaneously to Ozu's Passing Fancy and other silent comedies in the 1920s and 30s. Because Japanese films tend to express different attitudes towards the various facets of modernism, we should not expect Passing Fancy to exhibit a sort of distinctly progressive/modern attitude over a distinct conservative/traditionalistic one. Rather, we may interpret Passing Fancy as perhaps having multiple, perhaps even opposing attitudes towards modern ideas and the west. The film seems adopt this more complicated attitude: in one instance, for example, the main character's son falls very ill from overindulging in western sweets; he is only cured, however, by advances in modern medicine.
"Silent Ozu" by Catharine Russel, Cineaste Vol. 33 No. 4 (Fall 2008)
In this essay Catherine Russel focuses on Ozu's silent comedies and identifies a number of thematic trends that run throughout them. Ozu continued to work in silent film well after sound film had become prominent in Japan in 1931, so that by the time he adopted sound he had developed many of his own visual conventions, particularly the frequent use of use of low camera angles and detailed inserts. With these uniquely styled early silent films, Ozu helped to establish the Japanese shomin-geki genre, which dealt with ordinary middle class people. Many of these films offer various representations of fatherhood, using the economic background of the Great Depression, the tumultuous political situation of the time, and the encroaching modern world as context for challenging the lost, working class protagonist fathers trying to support their families. Each father must do so while caught up in the various hierarchies and obligations of Japanese society. In I Was Born, But..., for example, a father tries desperately to please his boss but loses the respect of his young sons in doing so. While Ozu's films typically contain well developed male characters (mostly fathers and sons), Russel criticizes the early films for a simultaneous trend of inexpressive female roles. Finally, she notes the repetition of suburban locales in Ozu's silent comedies, largely composed of cramped alleyways and undeveloped, telephone-pole-lined lots. She views these semi-developed areas as a sign of the steadily-approaching modern world about to collide with traditional Japanese sensibilities. Ozu's repeated focus on the everyday aspects of these suburban locations allow his films to affect the feel of familiarity that they are so well known for.
A number of Russel's points distinguish her essay from other commentaries and prove relevant to Ozu's Passing Fancy and through this, assist our understanding of Ozu himself. First, that Ozu was late in adopting sound film—he still used intertitles in Passing Fancy in 1933--certainly suggests his comfortability with the older form of filmmaking, if not his artistic conservatism. Second, Russel situates Passing Fancy in context of Ozu's other silent comedies, and then describes how the narratives and themes of these comedies reflect Japan's historical circumstances. Russel's focus on the various fatherhood-related themes that carry through Ozu's comedies is particularly useful in understanding the tenuous relationship between the main characters of Passing Fancy, a poor laborer and his son. Understanding the film's background in the Great Depression and Japan's modernization, we better recognize that Passing Fancy's sympathetically-portrayed father, who is so ill-equipped to confront the changing times, is intended provoke the audience to lament modernization and with it the end of Japanese simplicity that Ozu embraced in his films. This also suggests an old fashioned sensibility on Ozu's part.
"Ozu, Sound, and Style" by Matt Hauske. date unavailable.
In this article Matt Hauske examines how Ozu's editing patterns changed over his period of directing. Specifically, it discusses the remarkably consistent shot length in his films, and explains that the stylistic choices accompanying this shot consistency remained even after Ozu adopted sound film. The introduction of sound film resulted in an almost universal doubling of average shot length in films. While Ozu's films experienced the same effect, the editing patterns and style of his silent films carried over to his sound ones. Ozu himself admitted that his sound films retained the style of his silent ones. Hauske suggests that Ozu's editing style resisted the changes that new technology seemed to insist upon because Ozu continued to work primarily in family dramas and comedies. To Ozu, who valued narrative clarity and simplicity above all else, these types of films required lengthy shots and heavy use of intertitles. Ozu's characteristic use of long takes and depiction of dialogue suggests that Ozu was in many respects ahead of his time, even though he adopted sound technology much later than other directors. Hauske also notes that Ozu often makes it clear in his silent films that he's aware of the potential for sound technology: scenes where characters react to off-screen sources of sound seem to be playful reminders of this awareness. Hauske concludes by speculating about the reasons for Ozu's remarkable editing consistency in his films. Perhaps Ozu's greatest reason for very consistent shot length and editing patterns, Hauske posits, is the opportunity it affords to play with audience expectations and subvert Hollywood editing norms.
Hauske does not deal with Passing Fancy specifically, but as one of Ozu's later silent comedies this article seems applicable to it. Particularly interesting is Hauske's suggestion that Ozu's silent films were quite advanced for their heavy use of dialogue and lengthy shots. In Passing Fancy Ozu demonstrates a proficient use of both to further the narrative. By Hauske's assessment, then, Ozu proves to be a progressive director for his innovative editing work in his silent comedies. Perhaps even more important, however, is the idea that Ozu used very consisting editing simply in in order to subvert it; in doing so, he would often undermine the audience's expectations and diverge from the classical western editing that he admired so much.
Sato, Tadao. "Social Realism." Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema. Ed. Aruna Vasudev and Latika Padgaonkar.
Trans. Brij Tankha. Oxford: Berg, 2008. 41-54.
Sato begins by describing Mizoguchi's approach to realism. He believes that all of his films made during Mizoguchi's "social realist" period (roughly, 1929-1939) tackle both Westernization and complications of class-consciousness, and many of them can be considered leftist keiko films. In order to avoid police interference, Mizoguchi shot Sisters of the Gion from the perspective of gender discrimination. This resulted in a harsh criticism of the feudal nature of the geisha and the assertion that it is only natural for women to fight the prejudice they face in a male-dominated society.
Despite noting that Sisters of the Gion utilizes women's rights in order to make a greater critique of Japanese society, Sato fails to make the connection between the film's ending and the larger issues that surround the film's message. If we extend the criticism of a male-dominated society to a leftist perspective, we can consider the film an attack on the rigidity of the class structure produced by capitalism. After all, Omocha's actions do not only respond to the domination of men, but to the need for wealth in order to triumph over her socioeconomic status.
Le Fanu, Mark. "Geisha, Prostitution, and the Street." Mizoguchi and Japan. London: BFI Publishing, 2005. 69-95.
Mark Le Fanu's book provides excellent criticism on the surviving films of Mizoguchi. In the cited chapter, Le Fanu examines seven films that deal with the worlds of prostitution and the geisha of Kyoto. Le Fanu points out that the geisha's main function was an artistic one. He points out that Sisters of the Gion is primarily concerned with the characters' need for patronage and the geisha's exchange of freedom for money. He also sees Omocha as a free, brave spirit who stands out for her rebellion in a time when Japanese women were expected to be meek and submissive. Finally, Le Fanu confronts the problem of the film's ending. While many critics believe it to be too abrupt and explicit, Le Fanu believes that this change in pace is what gives the film its power: not only does Omocha's soliloquy explicitly point at the plight of geisha, but it is the only moment of the film in which we see such raw emotion (Kimura's bitter revenge is remarkably restrained).
While my emphasis in this project is on Japanese society as a whole, it is important not to ignore the fact that Sisters of the Gion examines the unique role of Japanese geisha in the 1930s. The principal motivation for Omocha's actions is to secure a new kimono for Umekichi so that she can participate in a dance. In fact, this is the only explicit mention of the geisha's artistic role; Mizoguchi largely overlooks it in order to focus on the importance of patronage. Perhaps Sisters of the Gion is a directed criticism of the geisha, but I am of the opinion that Le Fanu's analysis is too directed. It is not so much geishadom as a whole that Mizoguchi opposes (after all, the artistic role of the geisha does not come under fire), but rather the feudal values that surround it. Mizoguchi's chief criticism is the required subservience of women. These female performers, who carry out a highly celebrated artistic function (according to Le Fanu) must essentially sell themselves in order to survive. Yet in attempting to pursue this goal, they are resented or defamed for their methods. It may be an extreme case, but Kimura's revenge is a manifestation of this criticism.
Richie, Donald. "1896-1945." Japanese Cinema: Film Style and National Character. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1971. 1-58
In the first part of his book, Donald Richie traces Japanese film from its origins through World War II. According to Richie, Japanese filmmakers have always emphasized a rigid distinction between period films (jidai-genki) and films that depict contemporary life (gendai-geki). He claims that this stems from a traditional predilection towards categorization. Yet in many films, characters make a seamless transition from the modern to the traditional (Richie uses the example of man who comes home from work and changes from a business suit to a kimono). This seeming contradiction is one of the aspects that make Japanese film stand out from its Western counterparts. Richie cites Sisters of the Gion as an exemplary statement of the double standard in Japanese life: while the present is grounded in historical traditions, there still exists a strong opposition between old and new. He claims that while Umekichi is too afraid of violating customs to pursue her goals, Omocha's opposition to the traditions of her society interfere with her success (Richie points to the timing of Omocha's auto accident; after she has successfully secured a wealthy patron, her manipulations come back to haunt her).
The conflict that Richie discusses perhaps best summarizes the conflict between tradition and modernity in the film. And, just as Richie points out, one of the best examples of this in Sisters of the Gion is dress. Early in the film, as Umekichi and Omocha stroll down the street, we see the women's conflicting values in their clothing: while Umekichi is dressed in a traditional kimono, Omocha's blouse and skirt are more modern (or at least, more Western). Yet for all of her modern values, Omocha must later don a kimono in order to fulfill her goals; she is restricted by society's traditional expectations. Omocha's actions further embody this conflict: she fuses her modern ideals with the geisha's traditional role in order to bring about her desired changes. Her ultimate failure suggests the need for a reevaluation of social norms rather than an attempt to fuse the past with the present.
Additionally, it is worth nothing that when Kimura exacts his revenge on Omocha, he is wearing a modern suit as opposed to the traditional raiments in which he is seen for most of the film. This is essentially a graphical representation of modern ideals bringing about Omocha's downfall.
Kirihara, Donald. "Sisters of the Gion." Patterns of Time: Mizoguchi and the 1930s. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin
Press, 1992. 116-136.
Donald Kirihara's book contains background on Mizoguchi's style as well as criticism (largely formalist) of four of his films. Kirihara believes that Sisters of the Gion stands out from Mizoguchi's other films about geisha by contrasting the lives of two different woman. Kirihara spends time focusing on how the parallels in the narrative emphasize the conflict between men and women. He states that this also allows the viewer to focus on the static nature of both Umekichi and Omocha, both of whom, at the end of the movie, rearticulate beliefs previously stated at the film's beginning. He also discusses the film's problematic final scene: does the end enhance or take away from the overall message film?
Kirihara fails to adequately answer that question, simply pointing out the structural elements in the narrative to show how the final scene brings the movie full-circle. However in order to address that, it is important to consider the parallels that run throughout the narrative of the film. By intertwining the story of Umekichi and Furosawa with those of Omocha and the three men whom she interacts with, Mizoguchi pushes the spectator to draw an implicit comparison between the two sisters. This narrative structure suggests that the main focus of the film is actually Umekichi rather than Omocha. Yet if the close-ups in the film's final scene cause the viewer to identify emotionally with Omocha, why is this so?
Because it is Furosawa's bankruptcy that sets the film in motion, it would seem that Mizoguchi would like us to focus on Umekichi's traditional values. Following this, Omocha's role in the film (at least until the final film) is to offer an alternative line of thinking. Every action that Umekichi takes in order to further her relationship with Furosawa can be compared with a step that Umekichi takes to further her position (following the scene where Umekichi learns what Omocha told Furosawa, Kudo's wife learns that Kudo has become Omocha's patron). If the viewer is focused on Umekichi's relationship with Furosawa--which when not tampered with by others, flourishes--Furosawa's eventual departure is that much more powerful. This brings the viewer to the conclusion that Umekichi's traditional values have failed her.
If that is the case, then what is the viewer supposed to turn to? This is the role of the final scene that Kirihara fails to address. It is Omocha who receives the attention at the end of the film. While she may be recovering from an injury caused by her manipulation of men, it is her attitude towards men that is restated strongly. While Umekichi is meek and depressed, Omocha's experiences have re-energized her desire to overcome the geisha's subservience to men. While she is indeed tormented by her injury, the final close-up leaves us confident that she will eventually triumph.
So while the final scene does restate the themes of the beginning of the film, it shifts the focus of the spectator to suggest the dominance of one view (Omocha's modernity) over another.
Mellen, Joan. "Women in Japan." The Waves at Genji's Door: Japan through its Cinema. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976. 247-269.
Joan Mellen's book studies Japanese film by placing it in its historical, social, and political context. In this particular section, Mellen examines the traditional role of women in Japan. She claims that women in Japanese film (even after World War II) are rarely portrayed as independent beings with rights of their own. She then discusses the concept of giri (preconceived social obligations), claiming that even when women in Japanese film are pursuing personal inclinations, they are really only given the choice between different giri. Mellen then examines this concept in Shinoda's 1969 film, Double Suicide; her analysis yields a dichotomy in many Japanese films between "wife and whore" (or "wife" and "loose woman"). She then continues to examine the role of women in the films of Mizoguchi (she does not, however, look at Sisters of the Gion), stating that all of Mizoguchi's films reveal the director's belief that Japanese women are forced to sacrifice themselves by virtue of existing.
The feudal concept of giri resonates throughout Sisters of the Gion. Umekichi's devotion to Furosawa and her refusal to solicit another patron is as much a function of her love for the man as it is a result of her commitment to giri. Similarly, when Furosawa returns to his wife, he is fulfilling his own obligation to her; in the end, he chooses his giri to "wife" over that owed to his "whore". On the other hand, Omocha rebels against the notion of giri when she rejects Kimura and seduces Kudo. Additionally, by using Furosawa's poverty as a failure to fulfill his giri to the women in his life as justification for breaking Umekichi's giri, Omocha offers a glimpse at the double standard of Japanese society.
Yet perhaps more interesting, Sisters of the Gion examines the obligations between sisters. While appearing to reject the notion of giri altogether, Omocha's efforts to improve her sister's lot in life (by soliciting a wealthy patron) actually show a high level of commitment to her sister. Much in the same vein, despite finding Omocha's interference in her life to be despicable, Umekichi ultimately returns to her sister's side. Thus, while Mellen might believe that Mizoguchi laments that women who are forced to sacrifice their lives in the name of duty, there is no criticism of the social obligations between family. His problem, then, is not with the sacrifice of women in Japanese society, but the apparent subservience of the giri of women to the obligations of men (this is further demonstrated by the devastating effects of Furosawa's choice to return home to his wife).
Anderson, Joseph L, and Donald Richie. "The Talkies, Interior: 1931-1939 (cont.)." The Japanese Film: Art and Industry. 1959.
Expanded ed. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982. 90-125
Anderson and Richie divide their book into two parts: the "background", which focuses on both the artistic and industrial development of Japanese film over time, and the "foreground", which examines the films themselves. In the chapter cited, the authors examine how the advent of sound resulted in the commercial expansion of Japanese film as well as major innovations in film technique and changes in Japanese film content. Much of this chapter focuses on the evolution of shomin-geki during the 1930s. Shomin-geki was a new genre, emphasizing the importance of realism and focusing on the working class. Anderson and Richie note that few films challenge the changes taking place in Japan during this time (specifically, the call for a return to feudal values, particularly those of war and conquest), Sisters of the Gion is one of the few that challenges the path taken by Japan's leaders. They point out the strong tension between tradition (represented by Umekichi) and modernity (represented by Omocha) that persists throughout the film yet point out that the ending of the film still leaves question as to the best path for both girls. While Umekichi is too encumbered by her aquiescence to tradition, Omocha's modernity does not allow her to triumph.
In essence, Richie and Anderson extend the clash between values to the political stage. They ascribe an impartiality to the film, claiming that Mizoguchi's realism forces the spectator to make a choice between values. Following their analysis, we would expect the film to maintain an unbiased view of the sisters' situation, offering a challenge to the socioeconomic conditions surrounding the film while not offering a solution. Yet the film does take a clear viewpoint. While the ending leaves both sisters condemned, it is only Umekichi who has truly lost the ability to pursue her goals. While Omocha may be in the hospital due to violating Kimura's expectations (which are defined by his traditional view of the role of a Japanese geisha), she still has the potential to recover from this temporary obstacle and return to the wealthy Kudo. On the political level, Omocha's accident would represent the temporary delay caused by the reimposition of traditional values. Yet if Japan recovers quickly from this, it would still be able to be successful internationally.
Lopate, Phillip. "A Master Who Could Create Poems for the Eye." New York Times 15 Sept. 1995: H15+
Lopate examines the work of Mizoguchi in preparation for a coming Mizoguchi retrospective in New York City. Lopate raises the debate as to whether Mizoguchi can truly be considered a champion of women's rights; he claims that many feminist film critics believe that his attention to the sufferings of women is "disguised sadism". In particular, did Mizoguchi attempt to represent the pressures faced by the geisha in order to show the oppression of Japanese society, or was he in favor of the traditional practice that many feminists see as degrading women. Lopate points out that Mizoguchi often explored women's mistrust of men (he points explicitly to Omocha in Sisters of the Gion). He continues by considering the auteur's use of long takes in portraying extreme conflict or emotion.
The debate is particularly relevant to Sisters of the Gion; it is central to the issues surrounding the film's cryptic ending. While the detachment produced by the camerawork suggests a disregard for the fate of the film's characters, I find little evidence to believe that Mizoguchi is championing the traditional values that kept Japanese women on a lower social tier than men. After all, the traditional Umekichi, who remains faithful to her patron, does not end up happy at the end of the film. In fact, Furosawa's departure reflects a bitter cynicism towards the treatment of women at the hands of Japanese men. While Omocha's accident could be a form of punishment for her action, the sudden close-up at the end suggests that we are to identify with her pain rather than chastise her for her actions.
Santos, Antonio. "Las hermanas de Gion (1936)." Kenji Mizoguchi. Madrid: Catédra, 1993. 155-169.
In this chapter, Santos explores the theme of loyalty and sisterhood in Sisters of the Gion. Santos posits that because the two are presented as sisters, the antithesis of the two is stronger. He claims that this is enunciated clearly from their initial appearance: while Umekichi demonstrates her hospitality to Furosawa, Omocha enters and all but ignores the man's presence. Even the sisters' backgrounds provide stark contrast: Omocha's attitude is a product of her modern schooling, while Umekichi's insistence on tradition comes from her formal training as a geisha. This opposition mirrors the struggle of Japan, a nation with a rich cultural heritage thrown towards Western thought. Santos also points out that it is a man (Furosawa) that begins to divide the sisters. By the end of movie, both sisters are united by the failure of the one's docility and the other's rebellion. He sees Omocha's final lines as speaking for both her and her more passive sister.
By examining the ending as a product of sisterhood loyalty, one would reach the conclusion that it is the sisters' burden to each other that keeps them from happiness. It could be that Umekichi's commitment to Omocha is what prevents her from pursuing Furosawa, while Omocha's efforts to secure both a nice kimono and a wealthy patron for her sister are what lead to her accident. What, then, are the larger values being championed by the film? While Santos' interpretation suggests that Omocha's final sentences are the message of the film, it fails to address not only the conflict between the sisters, but the conflict between the men and women of the film. Rather, it addresses why the bond between the women of the film (and by extension, Japanese women) hold strong, while the relations between the film's men and women constantly falter.
Wada-Marciano, Mitsuyo. "Imaging Modern Girls." Nippon Modern: Japanese Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s. Honolulu: University of
Hawai'i Press, 2008. 76-110.
In this chapter from Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano's books, the author explores the idea of the modern girl (or moga). Wada-Marciano claims that the "woman's film genre" reflects the discourse on the experience of modernity. She elaborates by saying that the function of the modern girl in movies was to give form to an "invisible, unacknowledged Japanese anxiety" (88). The chapter ends by considering the dichotomy between the modern girl and the traditional woman as representative of the Japanese society as a whole.
We can consider Omocha to be Sisters of the Gion's modern girl. When contrasted to the other characters around her, she demonstrates progressive ideas (notably, equality between men and women). If we consider her further to represent a problem in to the Japanese socioeconomic status quo, Omocha does not only represent the threat of feminism to the geisha tradition but also the threat of a powerful, modern women successfully manipulating men in order to achieve her desires. Meanwhile, Umekichi can be seen as the status quo; she is undemanding and willing to accept what life hands her.
While the book doesn’t have as much relevant information to Ikiru as other books I read, it does present some new information concerning the film in its own right, not on its aesthetic principles or themes. The book is able to ground the film in relation to other Japanese films of its time, which no other book does, which is valuable in a complete understanding of the film beyond its importance as an Akira Kurosawa film.