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February 12, 2009

The Geisha

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Hideo Gosha - 1983
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

The Geisha won nine awards at the Japanese Academy Awards twenty-five years ago. There is little doubt in my mind that the awards were all deserved. What may be more puzzling is why it took so long to come to the U.S. without the benefit of a theatrical run. It's also saying something that Hideo Gosha won best director against the formidable competition of Shohei Imamura, Kon Ichikawa and Nagisa Oshima. 2009 is barely out of diapers and The Geisha could well be one of the best films on DVD seen for the first time this year.

The original title refers to the geisha house where much of the film takes place. The story could be said to be about family rivalries. In this case the families are not only biological, but also the family structures of geisha houses and yakuza clans. Katsuzo is a small time, independent "recruiter" for Yokiro, buying young girls to be potential geisha. His own daughter, Momowaka, has become the top geisha in the house. Momowaka has trouble maintaining long term patronage due to her apparent coldness to her clients. Katsuzo lives with a young woman, Tamako, who refers to Katsuzo as "Daddy". The film takes place in 1933, when Japan was still a mix of tradition and modernization, where the women wear kimonos and the men wear business suits. Unlike the traditional geisha, the women of Yokiro are required to sleep with the clients. This is not lost on Tamako who briefly works at a brothel rather than bother with learning how to also be an entertainer. The value of most of the characters in the film is reduced to that of a commodity.

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As he did in The Wolves, Gosha films the harshness of nature as a metaphor for the inner turmoil with his characters running in snow or rain. A rain storm almost destroys Yokiro. In one scene, the gunning down of Katsuzo by a yakuza gang is obscured by the steam of a train. Gosho begins and ends this film with shots of cherry blossoms, the traditional Japanese symbol of beauty.

I could easily gush about the award winning cinematography as well. As indicated by the screengrabs, Gosha's favorite angle in shooting close ups was with his actors facing the left side of the screen. This is a filmmaker who loves the facial beauty of his actors, especially stars Kimiko Ikegami (above), Atsuko Asano (below), and the late, great Ken Ogata. It is not only the framing of the faces of any of the characters, or the use of color or lighting, but that this is one of those few films where I could not imagine the camera's relationship to the action being improved upon.

While it is common to praise Criterion for their DVD presentations, AnimEigo may be better for what they do with their live action films. Not only are subtitles offered in standard white, but also the more easily readable yellow, which alternates with green when more than one person is speaking. There is also subtitling for songs, and signs which are often ignored in other films, as well as brief titling to explain some of the colloquialisms used by the characters. DVD notes offer more details regarding the historical background to the films as well as some of the more specific references used in the respective films. From what I have read on another site, Criterion has the U.S. rights to the nutty Japanese horror comedy, House which also features Kimiko Ikegami, but I think I would prefer if AnimEigo got their hands on this piece of cinematic nuttiness.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 12, 2009 12:25 AM


Um I'm trying to enter the contest. The answer is Park Chanwook for the film Oldboy. But your comments on the other post are messed up, everytime I try to post, it sends me to the youtube to the music video.

Posted by: Josh Ickes at February 13, 2009 03:38 AM

I guess it could also be for Sympathy for Mr. Vengance. But I went to Oldboy first.

Posted by: Josh Ickes at February 13, 2009 03:47 AM

We have a winner! I will be emailing Mr. Ickes for his snail mail address. Sorry about what's happened on the comments section for Epitaph.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at February 13, 2009 08:01 AM