Memoirs of a Geisha
Memoirs of a Geisha
by Joe Sinclair, Feb 2006
It's an American-made movie starring Chinese actresses speaking in English - and it's about the secretive world of Japanese geisha.
"A story like this is not supposed to be told," admits director Rob Marshall (Chicago), echoing the narrator's opening line. "But this movie is a love letter to that world."
To prepare himself for the film Marshall, a choreographer, travelled to Japan and "immersed" himself in the culture: "There was so much to learn. We were entertained by geisha and we visited the school where they train. It was extraordinary."
Speaking at the London premier, Marshall explains that the film aims to change Western misconceptions about geisha: "I don't think people realise that geisha means artist."
"They are these incredibly highly skilled and highly trained artists and the perception is that they are highly-paid prostitutes and that is the furthest thing from the truth."
The story is adapted from Arthur Golden's best-selling novel, which was so convincing that when it first came out many readers thought the memoirs were genuine.
Chiyo, a young girl from a fishing village, is sold to a geisha house in Kyoto where she suffers the jealous rages of head geisha Hatsumomo, played by the irresistibly scornful Gong-Li (2046, In the Mood for Love).
But the legendary geisha Mameha, played by Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Moonlight Express), takes Chiyo under her wing and helps her to metamorphose into maiko (apprentice geisha) Sayuri, played by Zhang Ziyi (House of Flying Daggers, Hero). Sayuri is admired for her unique grey-blue eyes and intelligent charm and, despite Hatsumomo's rumour-mongering, a bidding war involving unprecedented sums takes place for her virginity.
Mameha is a stoic goddess, both empowered and trapped by her profession. Her porcelain beauty and poise, and her adherence to duty make her a Japanese ideal.
But the subversion of personality beneath the face-paint of her white mask also makes her difficult to read. And although she is ostensibly a sympathetic character there is something disturbing about her extreme self-control.
Yeoh herself felt choked by the restraint her character had to display.
"She lived by those rules so rigidly that it was difficult to breath," confides Yeoh. "There were times when I was filming when I had to say I need a five or ten minute break to release all those emotions because Mameha just keeps it all in."
"Every layer of Kimono that went on, the tighter the obi went, the more you felt the constraints of what it took to be a geisha. It was a character that I was very happy to let go."
Marshall set up a "Geisha boot camp" for his Chinese actresses, where they had to learn how to walk, balance, dance, move, play the shamisen, serve tea and even learn English.
As expected the film looks stunning and it has won BAFTAs (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) for costume design and cinematography. There are moments of sublimely realised detail, such as the enchanting ripple of the kimono as the geisha teeters along in her wooden-heeled sandals.
But certain details are also airbrushed for a Western audience. The makeup lacks the plastered severity of a genuine geisha, reflecting instead the natural beauty of the actress. And although Sayuri's Cherry Blossom dance is stunningly dramatic, echoing her internal angst, it lacks the control and delicacy of the genuine dance. It is as if Marshall cannot help showing off his choreography skills.
None of the actresses have mastered English intonation well enough to give the drama of the saga a realistic edge. Instead the film smacks of TV melodrama.
This sense of melodrama is heightened by the romance at the centre of the movie which Marshall uses to try to drive the film. "The Chairman", the uncharacteristically un-charismatic Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai), sets eyes on Chiyo when she is still a young servant girl. The businessman buys her a cherry flavoured ice and this is when Chiyo vows to become a geisha, so that she can persue her new love.
But the director misses the opportunity to play on the moral ambiguity of such a relationship, with its divisions of age, status and power. Instead he plays the tale of unconsumable desire as a straight love story, and it lacks any real force.
This is not so much a "love letter" to the alien world of the geisha, as geisha-lite for a Hollywood audience.
Japan articles by Joe Sinclair
Interview with a Kabuki Actor