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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Floating World


The recent film “Memoirs of a Geisha” has prompted a lot of questions from Japan-based viewers. Primary among them:

1. Why was a film allegedly set in the pleasure quarter of Kyoto, Gion, filmed primarily at a set in the suburbs of Los Angeles?
2. Why did those overwrought and cheesy sets of Gion look like a Westerner's postcard idea of “old Asia”?
3. With the exception of Watanabe Ken, why were the principal roles all given to Chinese actresses?
4. Why do most people in Japan not really give a damn?
5. Why are Kyoto's legendary teahouses now opening their doors to the public?

Kyoto GeishaThe answer to number one is, of course, cost and convenience. Japan is one of the most expensive places in the world. A second reason is that, with the exception of one or two blocks in Gion, most of Japan's most famous pleasure quarter is a garish war zone of neon, telephone wires and poles, shiny “modern” buildings with “Western” façades filled with hostess bars, “cabarets,” and brothels.

Number two is sheer laziness. A simple flip through any book of Meiji Era photos of Gion or Kyoto would give one a better idea of what the area actually looked like at that time. A phone call to a historian at UCLA—or, better, Kyoto University—would have sufficed. Instead, we were subjected to a faux Chinatown of exotic Orientals.

The pat answer to the third question is that Watanabe Ken, who starred with Tom Cruise in “The Last Samurai,” is the only A-List Hollywood actor from Japan. Fair enough. In contrast, Gong Li and Ziyi Zhang are stars in Europe and America and Japan. Can you name a single Japanese actress? Though most Westerners cannot distinguish Chinese from Koreans from Japanese from Vietnamese, to have Chinese actresses—whose body language, facial expressions, appearance, and accent could not be more different from Japanese, let alone a geisha—take the lead roles is insulting. Imagine if a Japanese actress were chosen to play a Chinese concubine in a Yimou Zhang film. Chinese students would riot in Beijing in government-organized anti-Japanese demonstrations. The Japanese Embassy would be stoned once again in a show of nationalist fury.

Question five can be directed to the Japanese Ministry of Education, which promotes rote memorization in lieu of thinking in its effort at producing demoralized and non-thinking subjects.

The last question, why has a tourist program been set up to allow non-introduced guests into the teahouses, is, alas, one of economy. 86 tourists, mainly from Tokyo but chosen on a first-come first-serve basis, will be visiting Ichiriki, in Gion, or one of four other houses. The Kyoto City Tourist Association created the tour program, which costs 40,000-50,000 yen ($450) per person for several hours of dining and a performance. In the past, the teahouses would never have allowed ichigen-san—Kyoto dialect for first-timers, outsiders, i.e., those without an introduction—past the front door. Not even a Gong Li.

And, in interesting news, the Chinese government has banned screenings of the film in China. The sight of Chinese actresses, though playing Japanese geisha, servicing Japanese men was apparently too much to swallow for the aged members of the State Administration of Radio, Film and TV.

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