Space and Story__Sisters of the Gion 祇園の姉妹 / by HUA SHANG

The space within a story can echo and support the story itself. Sometimes, it can even serve as an independent “narrator", adding another layer to the story by telling the story in its own language.

 Mizoguchi was certainly mindful of the beauty and delicacy of the language of space (maybe it’s because he was living at a time when a number of people still inhabited in a world of shadow and communicate with poetic languages?)  Furthermore, he masterfully translated this language of space into moving images through sophisticated camera manipulation. The camera shots in Sisters of the Gion are artfully composed with careful framing maintained. In Mizoguchi’s hands, the long shots, shots with a fixed camera, and long takes turn into lines sketched by great architects, which give the space structure and form. His approaches make us, the viewers, aware of the space and it’s significant role within the story.

 What intrigues me most is Mizuguchi’s intentional creation of distance. Seeing Sisters of  the Gion, I feel like that I am pulled away from the characters and forced to become one of the distant observers. “Why did Mizuguchi try so hard to generate and maintain such distance?” I could not resist asking myself.

 The distance creates noticeable contrasts.  A limited number of close-ups are mostly given to Omocha, highlighting her progressive and uncompromising spirit as well as her unfair sufferings. The distance may also imply the social separation and distance of two sisters, whose figures are constantly seen vanishing in an alley filled with shadows. In addition, I believe, the distance reinforces an interesting contrast between mobility and fixity within the story. Most of the interior spaces in the film are revealed through windows and shoji. From these perspectives, the camera captures characters constantly moving in and out. However, is this “flow of space” necessarily free? As Burch’s To the Distant Observer suggests, the dominant aspect of Japanese architecture can be a ‘static and crystalline’ definition of space.  If so, then Mizoguchi’s fixed frame and long shot further enhance the level of such steadiness. In Mizoguchi’s camera, those protagonists are like goldfishes trapped in a giant glass bowl. They can move freely but only within the container. Omocha, the only one who dares to attempt to jump out of this glass bowl, ends up in hospital with a broken leg, helplessly cursing unfairness in the world of Gion.