Masters Of Cinema - Late Mizoguchi, Eight Films, 1951-1956 - Gion Bayashi review

The next film in Masters Of Cinema's Late Mizoguchi box set, moving on chronologically from the first offerings, feels like something of a forgotten gem. Gion Bayashi, at just eighty-five minutes, feels slight. It's less lauded than Ugetsu Monogatari, has less than a 10th of its IMDb votes and even gets markedly less coverage in the press notes.

Yet, Gion Bayashi is a heartfelt and occasionally brilliant piece of noir-ish, feminist leaning, character play; a look dark into Japan's 1950s economic state through the eyes of two geishas, teetering on the brink of the recesses of the profession and the society.

Drawn into the life because of a monetarily uncertain father, young Eiko (Ayako Wakao) is kindly shepherded by the more experienced Miyoharu (Michiyo Kogure), whose own mother controls the local area's geisha girls. That setup feels like, more or less, your standard geisha narrative but in Mizoguchi's hands a denser tapestry is woven.

Made in 1953 and set during the same period, the film feels as though it has plenty to say about a nation's uncertain recovery. Businessman Kusuda (Seizabur├┤ Kawazu) is chasing a large deal, but instead of relying on economically sound proposition he is at the geisha houses to bribe and charm a client. His advances take a darker turn during a problematic trip to Tokyo that sets up much of the film's heart-rending in the final third, as Miyoharu is forced to bend some of her iron principles.

That as a whole neatly surmises Mizoguchi's marvellous film, as it dips into the depths various members of its cast go to in order to make various sums of money. There's little moralistic judgement here (eventually, even Miyoharu must make a crust somehow, the film seems to conclude) but it's enough that the consideration is writ large across the whole thing, as the protagonists fall deeper into the need to recover monetarily and emotionally.

It's still not a film without problems, though most can be easily overlooked. Miyoharu is almost too nice, too much the antithesis of every single male character the film offers up as gutter-level slime. She helps Eiko with little prompting and then, late on, even helps Eiko's father when really she is equally as needy. Eiko meanwhile, in a year of learning that, apart from a suspect montage, happens completely off-screen, changes almost completely and unrecognisably, transforming for narrative purposes into a much more headstrong version of the character we have seen to that point.

Minor quibbles though, compared to the emotional punch the film packs at times. Mizoguchi trails you into a finale iced with hopelessness, that somehow manages to find particles of optimism.

Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.

The Late Mizoguchi, Eight Films, 1951-1961 box set is released in the UK on Monday 21st October 2013

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

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