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Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 09 December 2005
Every culture tends to view aspects of a foreign culture in terms of their own, which is why the idea that “geisha” is just a pretentious Japanese word for “prostitute” has held on so firmly in American culture. Geishas are not prostitutes—Japan has plenty of those, of course, but they’re not geishas. There is no group in Western culture that resembles the geisha subculture in Japan; if the movie of “Memoirs of a Geisha” does nothing else, it will probably set that right.

It’s based on the best seller of a few years ago by Arthur Golden, a historian and cultural anthropologist who thoroughly studied geishas and wrote what is considered to be a very accurate novel on the subject—surprisingly accurate, considering the author is American. The movie does not seem to be be as accurate, bending design, makeup and even behavior to bring them more into line with what Americans are accustomed to.

There’s not as much about the lives of geisha as I was hoping to see; they were well-educated (a rarity for women in Japan), stylish and perfectly-mannered, keeping largely to themselves except when entertaining wealthy men. The movie instead focuses on the life of the geisha who’s narrating the story—the one whose memoirs we see. At the end, you might be surprised to learn that all along you’ve been watching a surprisingly conventional love story.

In the early 1930s, young Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) and her sister are suddenly taken away from the family home near the sea. Chiyo is disturbed when she’s left off at the big-town home of a woman she comes to know as Mother (Kaori Momoi); her sister is taken elsewhere. Mother runs an okiya, home/school for geishas one of several in this city’s hanamachi (geisha district).

Pumpkin (Zoe Weizenbaum), slightly older, is a sweet-natured girl, also a geisha in training, but beautiful Hatsumono (Gong Li) is anything but sweet natured. Already a highly-regarded geisha, she considered Chiyo an intruder and does her best to humiliate and torment the newcomer. She’s jealous of being replaced in Mother’s affections.

Chiyo has a rough time of it; while sadly resting on a bridge, she meets a handsome, stylish adult known as The Chairman (Ken Watanabe), who buys her some shave ice. She’s impressed by the two elegant geishas with him, and instantly falls in love, hoping to someday be a geisha on the Chairman’s arm.
She soon gets her chance—or the beginning of a chance—when older geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) takes her on as an apprentice. She and Hatsumono are long-time rivals, and Mameha wants Chiyo (now Ziyi Zhang) to become the other woman’s successor.

The story skips swiftly over Chiyo’s training, short-changing us on what should have been the highlight, the heart of the film. Robin Swicord’s screenplay focuses more on geisha politics, rivalries and conflicts than on just what it means to be a geisha, and how a young woman from the country can be turned into an elegant, graceful work of her own art. (“Geisha” actually does mean “artist.”) When she feels her ward is ready for the big time, Mameha changes Chiyo’s name to Sayuri.

The movie is, nonetheless, engrossing and entertaining, largely because we’re watching talented actresses—near genius level in the case of Gong Li—dealing with ripe situations and lively, unusual characters in very colorful settings. Although it’s almost two and a half hours long, “Memoirs of a Geisha” is anything but boring.

For one thing, the sets are striking. Not a frame of the film was shot in Japan, instead being filmed in California, mostly on acreage near Ventura where the hanamachi and environs were painstakingly constructed. Although concessions are made in makeup and clothing to what are perceived (perhaps inaccurately) as Western tastes, the film still has a heady, dazzlingly exotic quality, a dream of another time and place.

Sumptuously shot in rich, deep-toned colors, the movie is one of the best-looking films of the year, thanks to production designer John Myhre, costume designer Colleen Atwood and cinematography Dione Beebe. It really fits the hackneyed phrase “a feast for the eyes.” These attractive, strong-willed emotional women clash in their rice paper rooms, they visit sumo matches, they glide through beautiful, stylized gardens, they gracefully totter down cobblestoned streets, all while wearing either matter-of-fact gray clothing or the most elegant, beautiful kimonos in American movie history.

The center of the film is Ziyi Zhang (“The House of Flying Daggers”), here with blue eyes. This would seem to me to be an amazing thing in Japan, but evidently it’s not unheard of, though remarkable; many describe her as the woman with eyes full of rain. And water flows through the film, the principal image of the movie. It begins beside the sea, it ends in a gazebo built over an ornamental pond. There’s a lot of rain, several scenes beside a river (one of which seems to be flowing with blood for a moment). But it’s not sodden; the water itself is treated with artistic care and sensitivity; the symbol never overwhelms the story.

Ziyi Zhang is almost awesomely beautiful, truly arresting—she looks like she could stop a man in his tracks with a glance even before she’s given geisha training on how to do just that. But it’s also a nuanced performance, everything held in check—as geishas must; love is largely not for them—and yet revealing at the same time.

Gong Li suggests depths and emotions that the script largely doesn’t allow Hatsumono. She retains power and dignity even at her basest and most contriving, and we can see that she feels tender emotions she firmly refuses to express. When she disappears from the story, our interest immediately lessens.

Swicord and Marshall do keep our attention, though, partly because there are wheels within wheels here, with not everything obvious even to Sayuri. Mameha wants her to entice gruff, scarred businessman Nobu (Kôji Yashuko), partner of The Chairman—but isn’t prepared for her own danna (basically sugar daddy) the Baron (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) to also be attracted to Sayuri.

The story is geographically tightly centered to this area of the town; there are a few scenes at the beginning near the sea, and during World War II, Sayuri has to live for years in the country at a silk-dying company. But otherwise, it’s a remarkably intimate film, both physically and emotionally. We learn very little about the men in the lives of these women, even though there are only a few in the story. It’s almost entirely about the women.

The primary weakness isn’t the narrowness of this focus, it’s that the story at the heart of the film is surprisingly so basically conventional. Yes, it largely is girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy—and it shouldn’t have been. The material was there for a truly remarkable movie with a setting so unusual it’s genuinely exotic—but on this beautiful, fascinating stage plays out a too-familiar melodrama. It’s done very well, but it would have been better had it taken more chances.

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