Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha

by Richard Donovan, Dec 2005

This film is known in Japan as Sayuri, the work name of the eponymous geisha whose memoirs are purportedly memorialised in this Hollywood retelling.

Arthur Golden's original work is controversial: beloved by millions of Western readers for its portrayal of a hidden world, it was disowned by the geisha, Iwasaki Mineko, whose life story was part of its inspiration.

Given that the provenance of the source material itself is in dispute, the fact that director Rob Marshall chose to cast three high-profile Chinese actresses in the lead roles (demure Zhang Ziyi, gracious Michelle Yeoh and a vamped-up Gong Li) means that this film cannot claim to be a definitive take on the Willow World.

We are asked to view the film as a fable, as Marshall said at an interview in Tokyo in other words, to accept it as a work of art rather than a biopic. (This is very much what Peter Greenaway bade us do with his Chinese actress Vivian Wu in the 1996 reworking of the Japanese literary classic The Pillow Book.)

And there are indeed moments of artistry in Memoirs that aspire to that elusive kind of cinematic magic that transcends questions of authenticity.

In one scene, the desperate little Chiyo, falling from a roof in an attempt to escape her kidnappers', turns, with a deft bit of editing, into the sliding abacus beads that have just calculated her ensuing bill to the doctor, a bill that indebts her further to the okiya (boarding house for geisha) that holds her in thrall.

Then there is the exhilarated Chiyo, running through the tunnel of orange torii gates at Fushimi-Inari Shrine in southern Kyoto. This timeless image is emblematic of her attempt to escape from her prison-like life as a servant-girl.

The first time it leads nowhere, and is just a temporary respite, but when the same image is repeated at the very end, her dream has become a reality, and the image, like her heart, is rejuvenated and resonant.

Other attempts at spectacle are less successful. When Chiyo, now the grown geisha Sayuri, performs a signature dance in public for all her potential patrons, the figure of her teetering on two-foot clogs in a stylised snow-storm is rather over the top and, dare one say it, reminiscent of other (Chinese) spectaculars in which Zhang has made her name (for example The House of Flying Daggers).

But on the other hand, the preceding group dance of geisha, which I've seen criticized for its gaudiness (more like a striptease!) does not seem so far from the truth.

I've seen similar theatrics at the famed Kaburenjo theatre in Gion during the cherry-blossom Miyako Odori performance season in Kyoto admittedly in the 21st century.

The romantic climax to Memoirs offers us an interesting point of comparison of the Western and Eastern aesthetic of love.

In the East, at least in drama, it is better to have loved and lost than to have loved and lived happily ever after (see, for example, the ending of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).

The Last Samurai took a middle way, being very restrained in its portrayal of affection between Tom Cruise and Koyuki's characters, while at least affording them the possibility of a life together.

Here, an unexpected twist brings unwonted happiness under the cherry blossoms. Yet as all Japanese know, it is the very evanescence of the blossom that makes it so beautiful.

Still, the sense of relief for mainstream Western audiences will be almost palpable and in this sense the film is at least being true to its audience if not its origins.

Another concession to the audience is language. The film has an uneasy relationship with Japanese. Everyone speaks accented English, but Japanese is called upon from time to time to add atmosphere, as if it's just another of the splendid props on hand.

And the question remains how much effort did the producers put into finding Japanese actresses who could have played Japanese geisha and spoken Japanese? Would unknowns have been a huge stumbling block to the film's success? (Given the film's American trailer, in which the female leads were not even mentioned by name because of their perceived obscurity, even given their international success, it would seem not.)

Further, there is a puzzling gender split: while none of the female leads is Japanese, all of the male leads are including Yakusho Koji, famous in Japan but not overseas.

In a way, using Chinese actors to play Japanese roles is akin to equating geisha with prostitutes a wholesale substitution that is not entirely without validity (many geisha did have exclusive sexual relationships with special clients; Chinese and Japanese share ethno-sociological roots), but is nevertheless a betrayal of sorts.

And as for using the original language and adding English subtitles, Last Samurai itself showed that this could work for a Western audience.

Memoirs of a Geisha is entertaining and beautiful to look at, but, as the film itself teaches us, there is more to a geisha than just these qualities: she also requires the patina of authenticity.

A little more nerve could have delivered a less showy piece true to the enigmatic essence of the Floating World, but still allowed us into the hearts beating beneath the layers of priceless silk in the way that Western sensibilities demand.

Read another movie review of Memoirs of a Geisha

Books on Japan