A Sweet Insight to One of Japan’s Most Traditional Figures
There are two sides to Ken Nishikawa’s documentary: Japanese tradition and family. Ken Nishikawa inserts himself as the narrator of his documentary, Matsuchiyo: Life of a Geisha not only to teach the audience about the significance of the geisha in Japan, but also to tell the story of his mother, Matsuchiyo. One of the best parts of this film was getting to know Matsuchiyo. She was not only a character, but a living, breathing legend. A living record of Japanese history that we had the honour of meeting through her stories and her genuine giggles.
This documentary is characterised by wide, personal shots of Japan and specifically Atami, the city where the majority of Matsuchiyo’s story takes place, photographs that depict the many stages in her life including her childhood, training, and children, music that help paint a sharp picture of Japanese culture, and Ken Nishikawa’s confessionals in front of the camera that tell this story. All of these elements come together in Matsuchiyo’s one hour and nine-minute run time, intricately describing the life and duties of a geisha. Personally speaking, I never knew what the figure was or what they did. It was one of the film’s great pleasures to learn, and to respect how important the culture is. By the way Ken tells the story, geisha hold a special place in his heart. He talks about how much his mother sacrificed for her passion, the family obligations, the loss of love. But one thing was clear: Matsuchiyo loved being a geisha.
According to the documentary, geishas and Japan’s opinions of geishas have evolved throughout the years. But still, the tradition is highly respected because of women like Matsuchiyo. In this film, she talks about what is required of the geisha. “It is difficult for a foolish girl to be a geisha and impossible for a smart one” Matsuchiyo says. She cares deeply for her profession and wants to see it done right. She wants to see her fellow geishas care for their clients, to truly listen and be their safe space. To be honest, it felt odd to hear how passionate she felt about servicing to men’s emotional needs, but it’s hard not to respect and understand Masuchiyo’s grace as a geisha.
Ken also tells his own family history. The story of his parents, and his father’s ultimate fall to alcoholism. It all comes together in the final moments of the documentary when he and his mother tell the true story of a well-known geisha in Japanese history named Okichi. Through a performance by Matsuchiyo and Ken’s explanation right after, we learn that Mutsuchiyo and Okichi have a lot in common. They’ve had similar backgrounds, the same career, and love lives. It cements the idea that through being a geisha, Matsuchiyo is a connection to Japan’s past, to a tradition that she does her best to keep alive. It’s a wonderful story and look into a family whose world centres around geishas.
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