Like many of Mizoguchi's films based around fallen women, Fukasaka's is one with a conscience, concerned with social and moral repression. None of this condemnation being outspoken or strident (unlike Sadao the drunken, radical son in the film, whose angry proselytising is scorned) but brought to the viewer's attention with a persistent subtlety familiar from some of the great films of the past. Events are set in 1958, when the Japanese Government is set to introduce and enforce the anti-prostitution act curbing and repressing the centuries-old tradition of geisha. Struggling against the external challenge of by the changing law, as well as internal ones presented by the different characters of female employees is the Fujinoya Geisha House, one still run in the traditional manner. Madam Sato (Junko Fuji), owner of the House, has been underwritten for the last decade by her longstanding relationship with a businessman-sponsor. This is now ending. One of her youngest workers is Tokiko (Mai Katajima) who in the course of time aims to graduate to maiko, then full-fledged geisha, to support her poor family.
At the beginning of the film there is a long sequence showing Tokiko quietly waking, cleaning and preparing the Fujinoya for another day. This she does quietly, without grudge, accepting her position in the establishment with loyalty and patience. At the end of the film we see similar quiet, methodical preparation to become a young geisha, a maiko. A parallel is drawn between readying the House, and then readying herself, for service. There are hinted doubts about her path, these put aside in the cause of duty and responsibilities. The pity, of course, lies in the unspoken desperation of her sacrifice. Far more than the noisy anti-prostitution protestors on the street outside can ever do, the young girl's silent dedication reveals the institution of geisha in the round, good and bad. Tokiko does what she does for her family in order to help send her younger sister to school, and support her ailing father in his loom business.
This she does without grudge, even while her dysfunctional brother decries the geisha world as a "feudalistic system." The system she embraces certainly offers exploitation - but we note also companionship, a degree of security and, finally, some pride as she reaches maiko.
Of course, it is a way of life still predicated around the sale of sex for money, the philosophy of "goodbye money, goodbye love." But Fukasaka plays down the sordid, bare, nature of such transactions, concentrating instead on the human bonds. Thus we have the semi-humorous relationship between Madam Sato and her businessman-sponsor, or the antics of the girls like Sonemaru and Terucho who, jealousies aside, plainly take pleasure in their work. Unlike the taxi drivers on strike outside, the geisha girls are not driven purely by commercial considerations; they would no more dream of downing tools than would Tohiko's proud, ailing father. In the traditional world of the Fujinoya, although teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and eviction, there are no threats or violence. The Yakuza, so characteristic of Fukasaka's earlier works, are absent here. Girls may still call upon their Madam for loans and, although poor, the House can still call upon kimono makers, and make due sacrifices to ensure initiation rituals are carried through properly. Above all, spats aside, there is a sense of dignity and limited independence.
Fukasaka's film is shot in fairly traditional fashion, with a largely static camera, but he fills the frame with warmly shot colour and interest. Unlike the staging of some of the scenes in Battle Royale, where confusion and mayhem was unsurprisingly to the fore, Geisha House has a far more deliberate pace, helped immeasurably by a lyrical score by Masamichi Amano (who also did much of the notorious Urotsukidôji horror-hentai cycle). Notable is the dignified harpsichord pavane utilised to underscore Tohiko's final acceptance into the profession, a striking, formal sequence. Together with the misty optics chosen by the director to film this section, the audience is lulled into a nostalgic awe of the proceedings, despite that we are witnessing the paid-for deflowering of a shy young girl by a 78-year-old stranger.
In these final scenes the face of Madam Sato, who has made an unwelcome physical bargain of her own to finally launch Tohiko in the accustomed manner, is dispassionate. As she awaits the climax of events seated outside, shots of her calm face are cut between those of a traditional kabuki wall mask. Initiates of Japanese cinema are well aware that saying nothing often says everything. There is a sense that Sato understands that the old ways are passing, that Tohiko could be the last initiate to pass through her hands. These extended moments at the end are processional, sad, and brave all at the same time.
Disrobing before her first client, Tohiko quietly submits, but not before enjoying some rare incense of his, remarking as she does so that the smell reminds her of her family's poor household. She is curiously happy and relaxed during the occasion - "intoxicated," it turns out, "by the odour of poverty." The implication is clear: missing the influence of obligation and environment, Tohiko's moment of voluntary submission would not be so easy. After this, the children's voices which sing the opening and closing credit sequences (the same tune incidentally, used by Peckinpah in Cross Of Iron, 1977!) seem less innocent and carefree, and Fukasaka's drama correspondingly more serious. Recommended.
DVD extras include a photo gallery, director's profile, English subtitles.