Hibari MisoraTakashi ShimuraTaiji TonoyamaMitsuko Miura
The Prickly Mouthed Geisha
Medium: film
Year: 1959
Director: Eiichi Koishi
Writer: Kazuo Kasahara, Ryozo Kasahara
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Actor: Hibari Misora, Shinjiro Ebara, Takashi Shimura, Hisao Toake, Mitsuko Miura, Taiji Tonoyama
Format: 86 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0328888
Website category: Japanese old
Review date: 1 July 2013
A slightly off-putting title, but Hibari Misora's not prickly. She's perfectly pleasant and reasonable. She just doesn't take nonsense.
It's a 1950s studio comedy, family-friendly and inoffensive. No geisha does anything dubious and the bad guys are so low-key that it's a surprise to learn towards the end that the film has bad guys at all. Naturally these are bad guys who can be beaten up by women and by men old enough to be grandfathers. I quite enjoyed the film. It's not a big deal, but it's perfectly good at what it does.
Its star is Hibari Misora, an enka singer who also had a film career. She was a child prodigy and was singing in concert halls to sell-out crowds by the age of ten. In her life, she recorded 1,200 songs and sold 68 million records, while furthermore she's still selling well today. However at the same time, she also starred in about 160 movies from 1949-1971, which blows my mind. Apart from anything else, she was a child actress for a fair chunk of that! (Born 1937.) That's over seven movies a year.
So what's she like here? Answer: pretty good. I liked her. She's not a Great Actor, for which she'd want more power and emotional range, but she's solid at everything and a dependable pro. Above that, though, she has a gift. She has clarity. I'm sure half of this was the role she's playing in this film, but there's something direct and down-to-earth about her. Especially in Japan, people tend to hide themselves behind a wall. It'll be a polite and charming wall, but it's still a wall and its purpose is to separate one's public persona from what's really going on inside. Almost everyone in the world who's not mentally ill builds walls, at least sometimes... but Misora is actively knocking hers down. You feel as if you're seeing what she thinks, unfiltered. It's not a showy skill and in theory it shouldn't even be particularly difficult, but Misora struck me as doing it unusually well.
This makes her likeable, even though she's playing a character who's abrasive enough to be potentially off-putting, but not sufficiently so that she's funny. I laughed at her traffic argument before the closing credits, but that's all. In addition she's not some insubstantial waif-like pin-up. She's got a touch of the bulldog about her. Perfectly good-looking, but not as stunningly pretty as the film seems to think she is. She's also capable of looking sleepy-eyed and can do a line in nearly Keaton-like deadpan. She's 22, but I'd have guessed that she was ten years older. (Her command and screen presence are part of that, by the way.)
In other words, she's interesting. She's got something that most actresses don't.
Oh, and she sings. Obviously. Not as much as in a Cliff Richard movie, but even one song's enough. She doesn't belt it out like Shirley Bassey, but instead finds personality of a kind that might surprise you. Imagine chatty singing. Admittedly her style is dependent on enka, which in general I find a bit odd and not that attractive to listen to, but Misora makes it sound great. She also has a powerful range, usually going very high but then sometimes shooting down to hit sexy deep bass notes.
However that's quite a lot about an actress who won't mean much to non-Japanese viewers today. What about the film?
Misora is a geisha whose father (the great Takashi Shimura) is a touchy, useless old bugger. His heart's in the right place and he's a very good carpenter, but he's also an idiot without the common sense to make the success of himself that his talent deserves. Misora has to look after this fish-faced old goat, while also batting away annoying male customers, getting her father an apprentice and babysitting some boy who thinks he's old enough to drink sake. There's a romantic interest, who of course has his own stiff-necked idiot father. There are business rivals. There are naive fellow geisha who need a mother hen from time to time. None of it's surprising, but it's nice and it passes the time.
The film has two weaknesses, I think. The first is that this Prickly-Mouthed Geisha isn't sufficiently Prickly-Mouthed. She's direct, yes, but she doesn't actually tear into people and there's nothing outrageous about her. Compared with what I'd expected, Misora seems mild. I'd have enjoyed it had they gone a bit further. The film even contains a perfect example of what I'm talking about, in the form of Kuma's wife. Normally she's sweet and friendly, but cross her and she'll bite your head off. (Given her husband's stupidity, quite right too.) She was funny. She made me laugh in all her scenes.
The other weakness involves the love story. The "falling in love" stage of the plot is underwritten. Everything's fine once that's out of the way, but one has to take it on trust that Misora's fallen in love with Shinjiro Ebara instead of getting to see it for oneself. Maybe the filmmakers felt they couldn't do displays of passion in a Japanese family film in 1959?
This isn't a brilliant film, of course. It's solid 1950s studio fare, not too dissimilar from what you'd get from Britain or America at around the same time. Decent, but nothing you'd call special. I enjoyed it.