Note - I have been told that my approach to what you kids like to call "spoilers" is to ignore them altogether and tell you whatever I want about the film with no warning whatsoever. Consider this a warning that this is meant as a discussion of thematic elements of the films in question (Sisters of the Gion (1936), Osaka Elegy (also 1936), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954)) , not a "thumbs up/thumbs down" review of the films in which I recommend that you should or shouldn't see them and preserve surprises of plot for your enjoyment. I will talk about several elements of the plot that elucidate my ideas about the films. If you haven't seen them, I recommend seeing them before reading this.
In taking on the incredibly broad idea of writing about Japanese film, I was encouraged not to fall back on things I could write in my sleep, thereby leaving out any kind of look at the work of Kurosawa or something more to detail my recent infatuation with Ozu. So I went this way - checked out some stuff from the fine Eclipse box set Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women (specifically Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy) and also Criterion's Sansho the Bailiff to see what commonalities I could find. And behold, in addition to fallen women, I found more to feast on for sure. I know - auteur schmateur, right? A good director is a good director, period, and this is only some pretentious French theory that's never been indisputably proven. But if, as has been suggested, not every director is an auteur and there are those who are merely hired craftsmen and those who leave an indelible stamp on everything they touch, Mizoguchi's definitely in the latter category.
Take for instance, these films, which all revolve around some common themes of societal positions (especially those of women) and the idea of people as property, as beholden to those who have money and the lengths they find themselves forced to go to to hold on to their ideals and their selves. The first one I watched - Sisters - even opens with an auction, quite neatly setting up a central idea that each film puts its own spin on. This auction turns out to be the selling off the property of one Mr. Furusawa, a businessman who has lost his business. He's a regular client of Umekichi, one of the sisters, and a geisha who stands behind traditional values, honor, and loyalty. Her sister Omocha, on the other hand, views the institution of the geisha as a corrupt vehicle for men to retain power over women and her approach to being a geisha is that of the opportunist and manipulator, despising the activities, but still mindful of the opportunities for social and fiscal success it offers a woman unafraid to be perceived as ruthlessly mercenary - a cab driver in one scene even tells her "You'll do anything for money" - and also mindful of the fact that in that society, there were very few other options available to an independent woman who is of no mind to marry a man.
Throughout the film we are presented with the two opposing approaches that the sisters take in their approach to the institution of the geisha, Umekichi's traditional set of values offering her the options of playing supplicant to snag a wealthy patron or of being a "good girl" with no status. When her primary patron, Furusawa, goes broke, she still retains a sense of obligation to him, one who has consistently kept her in his good graces, even though he has no means to support her any longer and even becomes a drain on her own resources. Omocha, on the other hand, ridicules her sister's old fashioned approach to men, preferring to retain her independence but understanding also that being a geisha offers her one of the few ways she can advance herself, an opportunity she resents and approaches as a necessary evil, even bemoaning the entire institution at one point late in the film. This dichotomy runs through all three films - the only seeming options available to women are to kowtow to traditional values in which they are offered no real power unless it's granted to them by men with money or to rebel against this order and suffer ostracization or real physical threat.
Osaka Elegy strikes me as somewhat less effective early on, because the characters and their motivations are less believable, but wow, what an ending! The film slowly offers up a portrait of a family in financial straits - a young woman with a promising job at a pharmaceutical company and an up-and-coming boyfriend finds out that her father has embezzled some money from the company he works for. Her brother may not be able to complete his schooling if the father's name is dragged through the mud as well. She decides that she may be able to solve her father's financial problems by accepting her boss's offer of money for a date, but this proves to be the beginning of a slide for her in which her every effort to extricate her family from their problems - and she does try, saving her father's name, supporting her troubled younger sister whose wildness had previously brought trouble on to the family, and even paying her brother's tuition - merely causes the further muddying of her own name, a loss of face that causes even her own family to ultimately reject her in the brutally hard closing scenes. Again, Isuzu Yamada delivers a strong performance which like her Omocha in Sisters of the Gion is a strong and self-reliant character, though unlike Omocha her character Ayako is working here for others throughout, trying her best to support not just herself, but her family. The idea of women trying to keep a family together in the face of societal and financial pressure is expanded in every direction in Sansho the Bailiff, released 18 years later.
In Sansho the basic idea of the film is set up as a father tells his son: "Without mercy, man is not a human being." This is the main thing explored here as a family is again subject to oppression and domination, scraping by as best they can to survive. The father is a minor regional leader whose controversial position sympathizing with local peasants causes him to be ostracized to an outlying post. When his family travels to meet him they are kidnapped and sold into slavery and prostitution, separating the mother from her children. The children learn to survive under the cruel bailiff Sansho, who deals out harsh punishments for those who try to escape his slave camp or break any of his rules - the young brother Zushio helps Sansho enforce his rules, moving far away from the principles he'd been taught while his sister Anju manages to continue to show mercy and kindness to others but becomes more meek and hopeless as she sees her brother's humanity fading. When they learn that their mother - long assumed dead - is still alive, they both renew their hope and take an opportunity to escape to try to reunite with her.
The film's grim tone and downbeat ending seem to be considered a real downer by many but for me it's only by these kinds of trials that the humanity they put on display - where the brother overcomes the easier route to success by willfully choosing kindness rather than maintaining a position within Sansho's camp - can be truly earned and believed. Without the harshness of much of what preceded it the emotionally gripping final scenes would've had a greatly diminished impact. And again, we find a family tested, with the son yielding - temporarily - to the wrong path and the women taking whatever option is available to them to survive. It's a brutal look at how the lack of mercy saps one's humanity, a hard lesson learned, but in Mizoguchi's hands it's also delivered as a complex, beautiful, even poetic rumination on what it means to be human. The film ups the ante of the earlier works by following out several shifts in tone and the meanings attributed to several characters. Unlike the "Fallen women" films, this one centers on both brother and sister primarily. not just on the female half of the story and it's interesting to see how his approach plays out with the male character. It's a masterwork where the other films are great, and it puts Mizoguchi for me in the first ranks of Japanese directors, one whose films I'm now gonna have to do a lot of work to explore.