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Ageman - Tales of a Golden Geisha (Itami Juzo 1990)


[Tales of a Golden Geisha]

Genre: Love and Power Politics (Slightly Comedic)

review in one breath

In Japan (and undoubtedly in other Asian societies) there are the well established notions of sageman and ageman. The term sageman derives from the Japanese verb sageru (下げる), which means "to lower", and refers to a person who has the undesireable characteristic of absorbing others' good luck. Ageman on the other hand refers to someone who has the tendency to bring good luck to others. (Ageman comes from the verb ageru (上げる), which means "to raise").

Ageman is a story about the hardships and romances of Nayoko (played by Miyamoto Nobuko, wife of director Itami Juzo) who, abandoned as an infant at the steps of a shrine, was raised from youth in the ways of the Geisha. Japanese geisha are rigorously trained in traditional Japanese etiquette and arts and perform for rather exclusive clientele which include prominent politicians and celebrities. Ideally, each geisha is eventually "sponsored" by a financially well-off patron who provides her housing and expenses.

Thus Nayoko's situation brings her into contact with some of the most powerful men in Japan, and from them learns and observes much of the world of power politics. As she skillfully obtains increasingly powerful sponsors, her exposure to the inner workings of social power and influence grows. And it is this exposure and insight which quickly becomes a source of good fortune for her sponsor, who readily recognizes Nayoko as a valuable Ageman.

Through happenstance, Nayoko becomes involved with Suzuki Mondo (Tsugawa Masahiko) an up and coming bank VP whose marriage to the bank president's granddaughter is slowly going stale. When Nayoko learns that Suzuki will become an unfortunate pawn in a political power struggle between much larger players, her love, skill and resources are put to the ultimate test. In the end it will be determined whether Nayoko is truly Ageman when the life of Suzuki is on the brink of destruction.

Most, if not all, of director Itami Juzo's films tackle some form of social ill or issue. His ability to wrap such issues with a hint of humor, within a narrative utilizing engaging and well-acted characters, has made him a truly popular filmmaker with the Japanese public. Here, Itami thoroughly explores both the world of geisha and the often ruthless power politics of which their clientele often engage.

Itami's films are widely regarded by Japanese audiences as wholesome and good-natured, despite the difficult social issues he seems attracted to. Through his narratives, audiences gain both insight into the social phenomenon focused on and a means of diffusing the issue through the subtle humor employed. Ageman deals with the uniquely Japanese geisha culture, the rules and nuances of which may be rather difficult for Western audiences to pick up on. (For example, key notions such as "ageman/sageman" or "sponsors" are never explained, since Itami assumes his audiences understand these things.) But armed with a little background information, this film is as entertaining and educational as Itami's many other films.

Version reviewed: Unsubtitled VHS

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Interesting exploration of Geisha culture and the ruthless tactics employed by Japan's social powerhouses. Brief scene of implied (offscreen) rape. No sex, nudity or brutality is shown (or heard). Some brief bare geisha boobies. To my knowledge, this is the only movie where Miyamoto Nobuko goes (very briefly) topless. (Nothing to write home about.) Nothing here would constitute strange or unusual.

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