Warning: Spoilers ahead.
Plight of women in prostitution has been the subject of several Mizoguchi films and Women in Rumour (The Crucified Woman) is one of his best takes on the subject. The reason I say this is because this film has a very complex screenplay that Mizoguchi seems to execute with ease without losing out on the main issue of interest. This film is a precursor to Street of Shame; an excellent finale by Mizoguchi on the subject of prostitution which is similar to this film in its basic storyline but handles it from a different point of view.
We are introduced to a madame of a geisha house played by Kinuyo Tanaka whose daughter has just returned from the city after a failed love affair and a suicide attempt. Through the eyes of this new entrant, we are introduced to the mechanics of the household where regular customers arrive at their usual hour. Then there are some customers that require a visiting geisha. Men appear ridiculous and lecherous as they get drunk silly and create a ruckus in the house. Some of them try to lure the geisha’s away from the house in order to cheat them and some have their eyes on the madame to become a partner in the business. Women somehow appear to hold their own in all this madness. They have to tread a fine line in the parochial society where they have to take the help of men without getting exploited by them. The running of the household initially seems to embarrass Tanaka’s daughter but with the help of a visiting doctor(who appears to be a good person), her opinion about them seems to change. She realizes the misery of the geisha’s who, more often than not, have to support poor dysfunctional families and try to prevent their siblings from entering the business. Tanaka herself seems to want to give up the business by helping the young doctor set up a clinic and hopes to be his lawful wife some day. Unfortunately, Tanaka’s daughter also seems to fall in love with the doctor who seems to reciprocate this feeling. When Tanaka discovers this mutual love between them, she is naturally heartbroken and her dream to escape the business is shattered. Eventually though, we realize that the doctor happens to be a vile opportunist and his treachery seems to bring the daughter and mother closer than ever before. In the meantime, one of the geisha’s at the house dies of cancer and her young sister requests Tanaka’s daughter to let her work in their house as a geisha.
The film reaches a poignant and ironic finale as on one hand, Tanaka’s daughter starts managing the affairs of the house(with Tanaka falling sick) and on the other hand, there is the inevitability of the sister of the dead geisha entering the vile business. The film ends on a wistful remark by one of the geisha’s hoping for a day when there would be no need for poor young girls to sell their bodies to make a living. We cannot help but pray along with her for the same to happen some day. For the moment though, there seems to be no end to this vicious cycle.