Sisters of the Gion recounts the story of two geisha sisters in the working class district of Gion. The elder sister, Umekichi (Yoko Umemura) is old-fashioned and traditional, and believes in the loyal duty of a geisha to her patron. Her younger sister named Omocha (Isuza Yamada), which literally means “plaything”, is modern and unsentimental, and casually exploits her influence on men in order to improve her quality of life. Upon hearing that a young textile salesman has fallen in love with her, Omocha persuades the gullible Kimura (Taizo Fukami) to embezzle materials for a proper kimono so that Umekichi may attend an exclusive social event and network among wealthy potential patrons. Inevitably, the disparate ideologies of the two sisters collide when Umekichi’s bankrupt patron, Shimbei Furusawa (Benkei Shiganoya) seeks refuge in their house after a quarrel with his wife. Umekichi believes that she is obligated to help the destitute Furusawa in return for his past patronage. Omocha, on the other hand, sees Furusawa as an intrusive burden to their modest life, and persuades an amenable curio dealer, Jurakuso (Fumio Okura), to invest money towards Furusawa’s eviction in order to secure his arranged patronage with Umekichi. However, despite Umekichi’s selfless devotion and Omocha’s underhanded machinations, the sisters find that true love is an elusive concept in the life of a geisha.
From the opening composite long shot of the Furusawa household, as the camera traverses from a public auction, to a shot of Furusawa and his assistant, and finally to the image of Furusawa’s wife packing, Kenji Mizoguchi creates a chaotic and disorienting portrait of love, duty, and opportunism in Sisters of the Gion. Using successive short takes, medium shots, and unusual camera angles, Mizoguchi visually isolates the characters from their environment. The recurrent imagery of fragmented space further reflects the impermanence and dynamic instability of the geisha trade: an inebriated Jurakuso passes through a series of seemingly discontinuous spaces before reaching the living room; Furusawa’s relocation of a partition screen during Jurakuso’s visit; the claustrophobic shot-reverse shot dialogue between Omocha and Kimura in a hired car. Demystifiying the exoticism and romantic ideals of contemporary geisha life, the film exposes the imbalancing entropy and transience of an existence bound in the underlying artifice of mercantile love.
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