Matsuchiyo – Life of a Geisha (松千代一代記, Ken Nishikawa, 2018)

Matsuchiyo PosterThe figure of the “geisha” looms large in Japanese cinema, but all too often international perceptions of what a geisha is or should be are rooted in old fashioned orientalist ideas of exotic Eastern women somehow both refined and alluring. Most assume geisha is synonymous with high class prostitute and that the life of a geisha is not much different from any other sex worker save for the trappings of elegance which are in fact its USP. These assumptions are, however, not entirely accurate.

In order to tell the story of the modern day geisha, Ken Nishikawa steps in front of the camera to tell that of his own mother which is also in many ways, the story of 20th century Japan. Later known as Matsuchiyo, Nishikawa’s mother spent the pre-war years in Manchuria returning to a land in ruins shortly after the wartime defeat. In order to support her ailing mother, she became a geisha which is, as we will discover, an extraordinarily skilled and arcane profession entailing the mastery of a number of traditional arts from dance to shamisen.

As Matsuchiyo later puts it, it’s difficult for a foolish girl to become a geisha, but for an intelligent one it may be impossible. A flippant remark to be sure, but it hints at the true purpose of a geisha’s training which amounts to a gentle erasure of individual personality in order to play the role of the perfect woman from the point of view of each particular client. Somewhere between bartender and therapist, a geisha must listen patiently to the complaints of each of her companions as they pour out their souls over sake, laying bare the fears and worries with which they could never burden a wife (assuming they might want to). Nodding sympathetically, she must remain cheerful and supportive, never voicing her true feelings but only those the client has paid to hear. The business of a geisha isn’t selling sex but fantasy, an image of unconditional love which is entirely conditional on payment of the bill.

As far as bills go, being a geisha is an expensive business and so each must be careful to hook a patron who will support her ongoing career – paying for training, equipment, elaborate outfits and hairdressing, in return for preferential treatment and loyalty. Matsuchiyo, as young woman, fell in love with a handsome young man but he was poor and her family still had debts. Though they urged her to do what she thought best, Matsuchiyo made a sacrifice and gave up on love to continue her geisha training and provide for her family. She became the mistress of a wealthy elderly man and later the “shadow wife” of a younger one from a wealthy family who fathered her three children but had two more with a legal wife. On his death she received nothing and the children were not even allowed to go to their father’s funeral, such was the taboo nature of their existence from the point of view of their father’s family.

The children were also instructed not to tell people that their mother was a geisha, leaving them with a lingering feeling of shame regarding her profession even if Matsuchiyo herself has absolutely none. Becoming a geisha is hard, it takes skill and application not to mention an investment in time. These days there are few women who want to be one, possibly because of its associations with the sex trade, but also simply because times have changed. Before the war when poverty was at its height, it was “normal” to sell a daughter to a geisha house so she might feed her family. Thankfully, this was no longer (officially at least) possible in the post-war world, but when Matsuchiyo became a geisha there were many young women like her who did so to escape the kind of extreme poverty which is happily absent in the modern Japan. The geisha houses enjoyed a post-war boom in the Showa era but have been in rapid decline ever since, becoming perhaps a rarefied cultural icon while the regular foot traffic trots off to the decidedly more casual world of hostess bars.

Nishikawa narrates much of his mother’s story in English with occasional on screen graphics to aid in explanation before allowing her to tell some of it herself in subtitled Japanese. Though others might have lamented Matsuchiyo’s “hard life” filled with loss and heartbreak, she herself regrets nothing and continues to dedicate herself to the geisha craft as the president of Atami’s geisha guild, fostering the latest generation of younger women keen to carry on the geisha legacy in an ever modernising world. A fascinating insight into the tightly controlled dichotomies of a geisha’s life, Nishikawa’s personal documentary is also voyage through the changing society of post-war Japan through the eyes of those trained to observe and most particularly an old woman who survived it all with a smile.

Matsuchiyo – Life of a Geisha (松千代一代記, Matsuchiyo Ichidaiki) was screened as part of the 2018 Raindance Film Festival.

Teaser trailer (English)

Ghostroads – a Japanese Rock’n’Roll Ghost Story (ゴーストロード, Enrico Ciccu, 2017)

ghost roads posterWhat price would you pay for fame? A down on his luck rockabilly guitarist asks himself just this question when faced with the offer of fantastic success beyond all his wildest dreams at the small cost of sacrificing some friends to the musical gods. Rest assured, Ghostroads: A Japanese Rock’n’Roll Ghost Story (ゴーストロード) isn’t waxing metaphorical on the price of success or the pitfalls of the music business so much as it is riffing on B-movie rock and roll horror. Everything about Ghostroads is retro from the rockabilly scene setting to the shooting style and musical cues but it’s all done with such charm and good humour that it’s near impossible to resist the film’s old fashioned appeal.

The Screaming Telstars are, as the narrator tells us, a bit “crap” and their lead singer, Tony (Mr. Pan), is perhaps not as committed to the band as he once was. Fellow band members remain exasperated by Tony’s often hilariously late arrival at rehearsal sessions while the producer and tech guy cringe at his terrible, lazy playing. Nevertheless, Tony vows to pull it together in time for the gig and, to be fair, he usually does. This time, however, things take a turn for the worse when Tony’s absent minded guitar frenzy proves too much for his ancient amp. The venue they’re supposed to play the next day doesn’t have house amps so Tony will need to sort himself out with a new one or risk cancelling.

Tony also has no money so makes the decision to stop into a tiny old fashioned second hand musical equipment store in a back alley to look for a vintage amp to add to his collection. Despite the warnings of the shop assistant (Taka Shin-Okubo) who acts more like the wise monk in a kung fu film than a serious businessman, Tony is strangely drawn to one amp in particular. Seeing Tony won’t be dissuaded, the man behind the counter lets him have it for free on the condition that it’s his responsibility now and whatever happens with it, he can’t bring it back.

This is largely because the amp comes with a lodger or as he calls himself, an “amperition”. Peanut Butter (Darrell Harris) is a smooth American blues singer who has been imprisoned in his amp so long he’s quite desperate to impart some musical wisdom to a struggling rock star like Tony, but his advice comes at a price.

Tony’s playing improves under the tutelage of Peanut Butter, but Tony has another problem in the return of a longterm nemesis from his student days, Shinzo (Tatsuji Nobuhara) – lead singer of The Mad Reader, and the man who possibly stole Tony’s girl, Shinobu (Tomomi Hiraiwa). Thus Tony’s journey begins from useless loserdom to big time star, besting his rival and finally having a shot with the beautiful Shinobu, but all the while everyone is worrying about him. Peanut Butter is not a positive influence in Tony’s life, and the fact that he keeps talking to someone no one else can see is a definite cause for concern, but then again Peanut Butter says he can make Tony a star, if only he’ll ditch all his friends…

In short, Ghostroads is a vehicle for The Neatbeats – the kind of band movie they just don’t make anymore. Set firmly within the world of rockabilly subculture, the film also features a number of other underground bands including 50 Kaitenz and The Privates whose lead singer, Tatsuji Nobuhara, plays the part of Tony’s arch rival Shinzo. Peanut Butter assures Tony that all he needs is to find the one perfect song (something he can help him with, for a price), but every song featured is a hit with the soundtrack proving the film’s most essential asset.

Ghostroads commits absolutely to its retro aims, aping the classically kooky effects of the down and dirty silly rock horror movies of ages past. The effects are spot on with Peanut Butter permanently surrounded by a blueish haze which seems to intensify whenever he’s doing something not quite right. Peanut Butter also has a strange little hologram device featuring a tiny burlesque dancer (played by The Tassels’ Miwa Rock) which is never explained but adds to the increasingly surreal atmosphere. Surreal and quirky it most definitely is but Ghostroads has real love both for its subculture setting and for the long forgotten classics it’s trying to resurrect. Good, clean, unpretentious fun, Ghostroads is proof enough that the rock and roll spirit is alive and well and living in Japan.

Screened at Raindance 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)