Oppression is an unsubtle word- it fails to capture anything of what it describes- the sheer range and variety of human suffering and fails to express the indignities that people feel, sometimes for their entire lives. You cannot sum up in a word the experience of being downtrodden, of suffering, of the slow erosion of the ego. One of the functions of art is to take us inside an experience- whether it is the experience of laughter and enjoyment or the experience of fear and death. Films have for me captured moments in history- like the Great War or the resistance to Hitler- in ways that words cannot always manage. A great film like a great poem surges through the psyche and says something, often indefinable, that is more than the sum of its parts- it expresses a part of human experience in a way much more vivid than my mere imagination can do. Oppression is one of those things that remain individualised- sympathy is the ultimate in fake emotions, not because the feeling is fake, nor because the effort is to be deplored, but because it is almost impossible to put ourselves genuinely in the shoes of another- to see the same beauty, to feel the same pain. Art can help us for a moment, a precious moment, believe- no matter how falsely- that we have seen in the eyes of another and stepped in their footsteps.
Gion Bayashi is a film that did that for me when I watched it last night. It is a film about the closeknit weave of oppression that surrounds its major characters- two geisha in mid twentieth century Japan. The younger woman, Eike, has fled the sexual advances of her uncle and unable to find any other work decides to become a Geisha. The older woman, Miyoharu, takes her in and tries to set her on the road to a prosperous life as a geisha. The film's plot is basically unimportant but it revolves around the fact that to this- to get to the point at which you can become a geisha you need money- you need fabulous clothes for example that a geisha's wage does not cover and you need patrons to introduce you in fashionable coffee houses and cafes who will want repayment. In the case of Miyuharu and Eike the payment demanded is sex- in Miyuharu's case she is the sweetener in a contract, in Eike's case the young girl is promised by a cafe owner to a wealthy client. All sorts of things happen in the story- but the real core remains this that the life of a Geisha is a simple exchange, dignified by ancient ritual, sex for money.
Mizoguchi, the director of the film, did a lot of research in 1950s Japan- staying in the cafes, observing the clients and the Geisha interacting and it is the feel of the film more than anything he gets right. I do not know what the real Japanese experience of Geisha in 1950 was like and that is not what I mean by the 'feel' of the film. What I mean is that Mizoguchi gets the very subtle ways that human unfreedom work absolutely right. He understands that debt for example is what traps Miyuharu into a difficult position: obligation is a source of coercion and coercive power is exercised by those able to wield both the power to call in debt and the power to manipulate a market. In a sense the film is about the subtle weft of unfreedom in a capitalist society: it deals with the issue of how an obligation freely entered into becomes a constraint because its used to constrain. So that in this case Miyoharu borrows money not knowing that the conditions attached are that she eventually must have sex with a certain man: those conditions are 'implied', afterall what else is a Geisha to do but obey the wishes of her clients, but they are not stated and they rip into the fundamental dignity of Miyoharu.
There is another way in which the fundamental dignity of the two women is at stake. Again it concerns sex- but here it is the relationship between gender and sex that is at stake. There is a male presumption that should a woman marry or consent to be a geisha or a prostitute, then she has consented to sexual intercourse from that point afterwards, no matter what she says. That is an attitude made visible by many characters within the film. And yet we see because we inhabit the worlds of Miyoharu and Eike, that that is just not true. There is a rape scene in this film: when it happens it is shocking, perhaps as shocking a scene as you are likely to see in a film of this era- not I hasten to add because it is graphic in any way, but because for the half hour before you see the rape, you believe that the two geisha have been innocently invited on a train journey and then you realise that the male character (and plenty of female characters afterwards) believes that such a gift must be matched by a reciprocal gift. I invite you for a bottle of wine, and you then will perform sexual services for me. It is what the Americans would call date rape: and I think the film gets why it is unjust and presents you with the full scale of its injustice.
Prostitution and date rape are heavy subjects and this is a serious film. It is also a brilliantly acted film- the two leads are both incredible actresses who get inside the skins of their characters and present them as real women. They are eminently credible. For example, Miyoharu is a hard headed businesswoman with deep emotional commitments and reserve outside of the coffee houses, but take her to a client and she becomes what her clients want, giggly and silly. Of course what that demonstrates is how little the client perceives- he may get her body and her time but he does not reach into her soul. WHat is perhaps the centre of the film's lighter side is the relationship between the two geisha- Miyoharu becomes in a sense Eike's elder sister and I think their relationship presents a vision of how things can work for human beings within the world. In that it is both unselfish and loyal: it is the opposite of the relationships that we see amongst the more respectable members of society which are all coercive and perhaps represents the slightest tone of idealism in this sad and sombre picture.