Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
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I watched the movie ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ yesterday in Shinjuku with a friend. It’s the second Japan film I've seen in little over a month, the first one being ‘Spring Snow’. The story is based on the book by Arthur Golden and deals with life at the opposite end of the social spectrum from ‘Spring Snow'. Set in pre-war and wartime Japan, it follows the fortunes of one of two sisters sold by their fisherman father upon the death of their mother to a brothel in Kyoto. It is a gritty tale that plumbs the depths of the geisha world, its power, its weakness and the machinations of a geisha’s success.
The lead character, Chiyo, is befriended in a chance encounter on the street one day by a company director – played with a marvelous blend of muscularity and golden heartedness by Ken Watanabe. Chiyo is enchanted by the stranger who buys her an ice cream, and is determined to find a way into his world by becoming a geisha.
At that time, Chiyo is a slave to the brothel’s madam, but is saved from obscurity by the intervention of an ex-geisha who sees her potential and personally brings her to fruition. The main part of the story follows the intensely political machinations of her road to success and climaxes in her debut when she is hailed as the toast of all Kyoto.
War sees her back where she started: in the countryside, spirited away there safe from the bombing by the beneficent company director. He calls on her to perform him a final service in order to get the co-operation of the Americans for his best friend’s business venture. This is the final test of her mettle, and in the process of compromising the principles she remained true to throughout her rise, she is redeemed by the continued trust of her benefactor.
In spite of being a Hollywood take on Japan using Chinese actresses in the lead roles, it is little – if any – less convincing than a homegrown depiction. Chiyo/Sayuri is played by Ziyi Zhang, and her main rival is played by a Chinese actress too. Ziyi Zhang had been criticized for an overly exuberant performance of Sayuri’s debut dance scene – which truly is a feat of almost acrobatic skill and fiery energy. However, I think this is based on too ‘wooden doll’ an idea of what Japanese culture is all about and falls for the false image the Japanese project of themselves as demure to the bone. (See the blog article on Abe M. Aria for an example of what I’m talking about.)
The only thing about this movie that really got me squirming in my seat was the language. Everyone spoke in Oriental English, with little bits of Japanese thrown in to give it extra Oriental color. I realize that the actors themselves no doubt have non-native speaker accents when speaking English; but purposely smattering their already obviously foreign English with extra Japanese phrases was nothing short of twee and only served to distance the viewer from the story – putting it in a ‘long long ago in a faraway land’ kind of box.
However, in spite of its forced exoticism, this movie satisfies with the sense of excitement it rouses in following the young geisha's career, and the wonderful depictions of her wit and elegance at the expense of her cheesy rivals. The sets are convincing, the acting is superb, and the conscientious portrayals of life in bygone Japan are more than convincing - and moving - enough to warrant paying the price of admission.