It's a Kenji Mizoguchi geisha film. It's a bit slow, but it gets good at the end.
The trickiest thing about this film, I think, is its subject matter. Geisha are an oft-misunderstood topic, even to some extent in Japan. They're absolutely not prostitutes. Gion was Kyoto's geisha district and Shimbara was its red-light district. Completely different. A geisha was a well-educated and highly skilled entertainer, skilled in dancing, conversation and playing a variety of musical instruments. The name literally means "person of the arts".
However when you've got beautiful, cultured, sophisticated women being paid lots of money to entertain men... well, you can imagine. A geisha might have a "danna" (translated in Criterion's subtitles as 'patron') who'd be her principal financial benefactor. This relationship wouldn't necessarily involve sex... but then again, there's no one to say it wouldn't, either.
Thus what you get out of this film will depend, to quite an extent, on what you're bringing into it. A sixteen-year-old girl called Ayako Wakao signs up to become a geisha. It's her own choice, although all her other options are ugly. Her mother's dead, her father's a failure and her uncle's trying to demand sexual favours to let her live in his house. The geisha she approaches, Michiyo Kogure, tries to dissuade her, but eventually accepts despite the fact that geisha training costs a bomb. Wakao must have had some education from her late mother (an ex-geisha herself) and so after a mere year's study, she's judged fit to be sent out in public to earn her keep.
I wouldn't really say I enjoyed most of this film. It's civilised, delicate and accurate... but it's also not particularly dramatic. They're geisha. They do geisha things. Yup, definitely geisha. Gotcha. The details of this might be surprising if you don't know much about the cultural background, but as it happened I already knew a fair amount. (One of my students in Japan was writing her university dissertation on the subject.) Furthermore this film's characters have no ambitions beyond geisha-ing. Things might turn ugly when Wakao's naivete trips over the unspoken avenues of her line of work, but that's something you'll be aware of from an early stage. I can't really say I felt this film had many surprises. It's more of a march of pessimistic inevitability.
What's interesting about the film, I think, is its characters. They're playing against type.
1. The lead, Wakao, is the one of whom that's least true... but that's because the studio made Mizoguchi tone down the script as they didn't want their new star to play a 'bad girl'. Nevertheless she's representing the new post-war generation and will hold discussions with perplexed older geisha about her legal rights and how she shouldn't have to do anything she doesn't want to. Part of what makes this film slightly uncomfortable is the fact that she's so clearly a misunderstanding waiting to happen.
2. Michiyo Kogure on the other hand seems as hard as nails. The film opens with her sneering at a client who wants to marry her, slapping him down with lines like "a geisha's lie isn't a lie". She'd have made a terrifying villain. Furthermore I found something slightly off-putting about her professional manner when geisha-ing, which I can only describe as a sort of glib simpering shell of sugar-coated disinterest. I'm sure 90% of that is simply the fact that everything about a geisha will look unnatural to Western eyes, from their hair and costumes to their conversation, but Kogure somehow gave me the impression of being even more superficial and chilly than necessary.
None of this is what her character's really like. She's hardened. She's been doing this a long time... and yet she's capable of being just as squeamish about sex as Wakao. She's generous when you wouldn't expect her to be and the result is a surprisingly complex character and performance.
3. Chieko Naniwa is the opposite. She's playing the lady who effectively rules Gion, who'll sell women without turning a hair and makes mercenary deals that you won't learn about for years... yet she's lovely. She's excellent in the role (and won a Blue Ribbon award for it from Tokyo's writers and critics), but she's a sweet old dear you'd want as your granny.
Even the men aren't quite what you'd expect. Wakao's wreck of a father is truly pathetic and the dodgy businessmen feel depressingly true to life, but there's something a bit off about Kanji Koshiba as Kanzaki. Kogure really doesn't want to sleep with him. I think she hates him and the film's final act is building this up into a huge make-or-break deal... but the Koshiba in this film is likeable, in a serious-minded way. He tells dodgy businessmen to stop offering him bribes. He's not interested in getting drunk and partying the night away with lots of girls. I honestly don't know what Kogure found so objectionable about him, unless perhaps it's simply that she found the whole situation an offence against her virtue.
It's complicated. Mizoguchi's making a powerful statement on behalf of the rights and dignity of women, but he's wrinkling up the characterisation far more than you'd expect. The ending's also more interested in realism than in conventionally happy endings.
He'd made a similar film nearly two decades earlier, incidentally, with Sisters of Gion.
I wouldn't call much of this film entertaining, to be honest, but it catches fire in the last act. The ice cream moment had me almost gasping, while the big last-act Wakao-Kogure scene is easily worth the price of admission. What makes the film good, I think, is its sophistication. If this film were made today, you'd expect it to be heavy-handed and preachy. Back in 1953, this kind of feminist viewpoint would have been more startling. However it's a more pessimistic and uncomfortable film than any such simple description would suggest. It's dissecting the suffering of women in Japanese society, as so often with Mizoguchi, but the more you examine its details, the more complicated it gets.
"You mustn't fall in love. It's bad for business."