MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA – 2005 – movie – directed by Rob Marshall – based upon a book by Arthur Golden (his primary sources were Helene Shizue Fukuya and Mineko Iwasaki – who sued him for invasion of privacy) – screenplay by Robin Swicord – the producer is Steven Spielberg - the players are; as Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) – as Sayuri, (Zhang Ziyi), Tanaka (Togo Igawa), Sakamoto (Mako Iwamatsu), Satsu (Samantha Futerman), Sakamoto’s Wife (Elizabeth Sung), Hatsumomo (Gong Li), Chairman (Ken Watanabe), Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), Pumpkin (Yuki Kudo), Nobu (Koji Yakusho). The music track includes solos by Itzhak Perlman on the violin and Yo-Yo Ma on the cello. Dion Beebe was behind the camera; the movie was edited by Pietro Scalia.
The movie was nominated for six Academy Awards and won three: Best Cinematography (Dion Beebe), Best Art Direction (Patrick M. Sullivan Jr.), and Best Costume Design (Colleen Atwood). It was released in Japan with the title, Sayuri.
They initially wanted to shoot in Japan, but the logistics of maneuvering the crew and negotiating with multiple local bureaucracies was too much to overcome. All the beautiful gardens, tea houses and the streets in this world that has all but disappeared, were built in Ventura County near Los Angeles. The set construction crew should be recognized for their difficult and beautiful work.
The cast is Asian, but with female Chinese actors in the leading roles. Mr. Marshall favored Ziyi Zhang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) because of her experience as a dancer.
His reasoning was that she’d be easier to train for the dance scenes, the tea service and singing. They could not find Japanese actors who were correct for the part nor who could speak good enough English.
In China, which was having difficult relations with Japan when the film was released, Zhang Ziyi was criticized for playing love scenes with a Japanese actor. But most Japanese were pretty much OK with the pan-Asian substitutions. The film was banned in China, but shortly after its release you could buy DVDs on the streets for a dollar and there were free downloads available on the web. China is going to out-capitalize the west… hang on to your hat.
A little historical background here to set the scene in Japan before our movie begins in 1939, and as the Second World War descends. In 1853 Commander Matthew C. Perry was sent by President Fillmore to force Japan to trade with the U.S, and to use gun-boat diplomacy if needed.
When the ruling Shogun refused to meet with him his ships lobbed shells into the buildings lining Tokyo Bay. Japan had no navy and seeing that they were technologically unable to respond they agreed to the American dictated terms. On several subsequent encounters the U.S. Navy used their forces to overcome the feudal rulers who defied them.
Japan sided with Great Britain in WWI and at the end was recognized as one the “Big Five” industrial countries and entered the League of Nations. However shortly after, America refused to accept Japanese as equals and passed a
law banning all Asians from emigrating to the U.S. The world-wide depression after 1929 triggered a series of nationalist acts by Japan. Seeking stature among equals, Japan invaded Manchuria in an act of colonial aggression and capitalist expansion. In 1932 a group of ultra-right-wing naval officers assassinated the prime minister.
In 1936, fearing a Communist take-over of China, they signed The Anti-Comintern Pact with Nazi Germany. The world-wide depression deepened and Japan entered a period of deprivation. Thus, the scene was set for the conditions that forced families to sell their children, hoping they would find a better life. This is where our movie begins.
Their mother is dying; the little girls are separated and Chiyo is sold to an okiya (geisha house) as a servant. Her sister, Satsu, goes directly to a brothel.
So now we throw in Hatsumomo (Gong Li in an outstanding performance), the cruel dragon lady who makes Chiyo’s life miserable; the perfect foil for our story. Director Rob Marshall definitely made this movie for a Western audience. The heartbreaking appeal of the two helpless sisters, instantly captures you at your emotional core… you cannot escape.
Chiyo is assigned to Hatsumomo’s as a servant. When Hatsumomo sees her gray eyes and appealing face she instantly recognizes a future competitor. Through a series of spiteful plots and maneuvers she tries to destroy Chiyo’s chances of rising above servitude.
A weeping Chiyo pauses on the street and is spotted by The Chairman who treats her kindly. She is infatuated with his gentleness and vows to find him again. She takes the only path available to her; she commits herself to “this tiny world of women” and plunges into the hard work of becoming a geisha.
Chiyo’s inner qualities are recognized by Mameha, Hatsumomo’s chief rival, who purchases Chiyo’s contract from Mother (Mrs. Nita), the owner of the okiya.
It is Mameha’s intension to train Chiyo as a maiko (apprentice geisha). Her plan is to replace Hatsumomo with Chiyo instead of Pumpkin, Hatsumomo’s protégé. …. she has thrown down the gauntlet. Let the intrigue begin!
The romanticized geisha is judged in Japan with the same blind eye as we in the U.S. view our cowboy culture. The average cowboy in the “wild west” was one step above being a homeless person…. and he often was. In addition it was a harsh world ruled by rich cattle owners who exploited the cattle, the land, and the men who worked for them. If you want a true insight on that time in our past I suggest the Annie Proulx short story, “How the West was Really Won”. It ain’t pretty… and you won’t be proud.
Upon beginning her training as a maiko Chiyo’s name is changed to, Sayuri (which is the title of the movie when it was released in Japan). Sayuri and Pumpkin find themselves as sisters in training and both are on their way to becoming geisha.
The 5 to 7 year training period is the foundation of the mythical geisha role in Japanese history. The work is intense and exacting. Today, in the West, their role could best be compared to performance art, or modern dance. Geisha productions are much in demand and they demonstrate their skills in opera houses and theaters world-wide.
At its core Japan wants to continue the myth that it is still a closed, secret society, impenetrable from outside understanding. We can admire their art… marvel at the cherry blossoms…. ponder the meaning of a haiku….. but we can never, never penetrate that defensive shell surrounding what they consider to be their uniqueness.
However, modernity has destroyed this illusion. Pick any street or suburb in Tokyo… you can find similar scenes in most major capitals on the continent of your choice.
Adaption of western culture and lifestyle is nationally accepted and the daily lives of the average Japanese are interchangeable with their western brothers and sisters.
In our movie Sayuri never relinquishes her wish to share her life with The Chairman. Ah… but traditional culture has blocked her path. During a battle in Manchuria the Chairman’s life was saved by his best friend, Nobu, who was badly disfigured by the fire that engulfed them. After the war in China Nobu and The Chairman built a manufacturing empire. The Chairman, who was beguiled by that little girl on the street, has never forgotten her. However, tradition dictates that The Chairman must repay Nobu’s selfless act of courage with what he treasures most… his wish to have Sayuri at his side.
Ahhhh… but the pairing, due to Hatsumomo’s attempts to destroy Sayuri, does not go well. At about this point in our story disaster strikes the okiya, Hatsumomo fades into the night and Japan plunges into the Second World War.
At the end of the war Nobu and The Chairman have lost their empire but not their drive so succeed and again join forces to supply American companies. They turn to Sayuri and Mameha to help them sway the US corporate decision makers.
But once again an obstacle arises to thwart Sayuri’s happiness in the form of Pumpkin who carries a long held resentment that she was replaced by Sayuri as Hatsumomo’s successor.
There has been a lot of talk that Japanese people today might disdain this movie as a simplistic romanticized gaijin perspective of a small part of their history. However it is my opinion that they secretly love this idealized view of themselves.
In the ending scenes Arthur Golden’s story does nothing to destroy this glamorized illusion and Rob Marshall’s movie, beautifully supports this vision.