Eiko is in the search of the okiya run by the geisha Miyoharu. As she approaches the screen doors, she witnesses an exchange between Miyoharu and a client. The client, greatly indebted and unable to afford Miyoharu's services, is coldly and mockingly berated by Miyoharu for his presumptuousness. Enraged by the sudden demise of her affected desire for him and her mercenary attitude.
In supplication, Eiko reveals that the death of her mother, has left her at the mercy of her uncle, who demands that Eiko repay the debt incurred by her mother's funeral expenses by rendering sexual services to him. She pleads with Miyoharu to take her on as an apprentice maiko. Miyoharu attempts to dissuade her, on the grounds that life as a geisha is difficult and the training exceptionally arduous, but in the face of Eiko's determination she finds sympathy for the girl's situation and concedes. She sends her servant to procure the formal consent of Eiko's father, a struggling businessman, but he refuses to grant permission on the grounds that Eiko has shamed him by choosing to enter her mother's profession.
Eiko has achieved the necessary level of training to be formally introduced as a maiko, under her professional name Miyoei. In order to make the arrangements for her debut. Okimi, the proprietor, grudgingly assents to assist her with the money. In Okimi's teahouse, the two geishas are seated with Kusuda and his associate, who are in the process of convincing a manager on the verge of promotion to the directorship of another prosperous company.
Kanzaki is instantly taken with Miyoharu and strokes her arm during a subsequent dance recital performed by other attending geisha. Kusuda preys upon the vulnerable Miyoei, that she is obliged by etiquette to drink, despite Miyoharu's remonstrations.
Miyoei asks her instructor about her rights as set out under the post-war constitution, and on her rights should a client desire to force himself upon her. The instructor answers that while she does indeed have these rights, it would be unthinkable for her to refuse a client. Miyoharu is extremely resistant to the proposal, although when Okimi reveals that she borrowed the money for Miyoei's debut from Kusuda on the promise that he would be entitled to take her on later, Miyoharu is obliged to take it under consideration. Okimi also suggests that Miyoharu herself take on a patron, to assure her future and Miyoei's.
Later, at the teahouse, Okimi tries to directly persuade the recalcitrant Miyoei to accede to Kusuda's proposal. Miyoei manages to remain aloof and promises to think on it. She flirts with Kusuda as Miyoharu entertains Kanzaki, subtly fending off his advances.
They encounter Miyoei's father, who has fallen on extremely hard times and tells Miyoharu that his debts have become so crippling that suicide will soon be his only resort.
Kusuda's associate explains to Okimi that while they are prepared to 'forgive' Miyoei for her treatment of Kusuda, their principal concern is with Miyoharu's reluctance to aid them in seducing Kanzaki, which must be remedied before they can continue to patronise the teahouse. Okimi arranges a meeting with Miyoharu, who she sharply criticises for her insolence in thwarting a client's desires and demeaning her profession. Okimi flaunts her influence over Miyoharu, threatening to cut off her custom, but Miyoharu refuses to relinquish either herself to Kanzaki or Miyoei to Kusuda.
As a consequence of her refusal, all Miyoharu's engagements are called off by teahouse proprietors afraid of Okimi's influence, despite district regulations prohibiting the inhibition of other establishments' custom by any one proprietor. Miyoei's father, in a pathetic state, also pays Miyoharu a visit as his last recourse to secure a loan and save his life from his debtors. While highly critical of his hypocrisy in seeking assistance from the earnings of the daughter he disowned, she offers him her last remaining possessions.
Despite Miyoharu's support for her actions to defend her rights and insistence that she maintain her dignity, Miyoei defies her and presents herself to Okimi to be taken to Kusuda. Okimi is obliged to call Miyoharu to obtain her formal consent, which Miyoharu denies.
Miyoharu returns to the okiya laden with gifts for Miyoei. Wary of the sudden change in their fortunes, Miyoei demands to know whether Miyoharu prostituted herself to Kanzaki and threatens to leave if her suspicions are confirmed. Miyoharu is forced to admit that she did, but it was just to protect Miyoei because she is the closest person she has to family and they reconcile.
One of Mizoguchi's post-war films, A Geisha is a scathing account of the difficulties suffered by geisha and prostitutes in maintaining and balancing their dignity, livelihood, and personal rights.
A Geisha has been widely lauded by critics as a poignant, elegant work, sympathetically exploring controversial issues of rights and dignity for women with socially restricted claims to self-determination. A Geisha secured the 1954 Blue Ribbon Awards for Best Supporting Actor, awarded to Eitarō Shindō for his portrayal of Eiko's father, and for Best Supporting Actress, awarded to Chieko Naniwa for her role as Okimi.