The only thing that’s incomprehensible about Memoirs of a Geisha, the movie, is that it only won three Academy Oscars (for Art Direction, Costume Design and Cinematography). Anyone who watches this wonderful movie, will also, I’m sure, award it Oscars for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress (for Ziyi Zhang, who plays the Geisha at the heart of the film, and Michelle Yeoh, respectively; not only are they truly beautiful, but they are terrific actors), besides the fab performances of Ken Watanabe and Koji Yakusho), and the terrific, touching and – yes! – sentimental– see next paragraph! – musical score by John Williams.
The film is gorgeously sentimental. Not, I hasten to add blech-icky-saccharine-swallow-a-cup-of-cold-sick-yuckiness-type sentimental. Yes, I confess I’m getting defensive here, because I think there’s a vogue for disdain and ridicule about the term and I believe this misconstrues its meaning. The majority informal view, it seems, is that it means a somehow frivolous, fake and over the top expression of emotions, thereby demonstrating a shallowness and hypocrisy of personality; that there’s an absence of any real feeling or depth of such; that it comprises an excess of emotions, all of which are fundamentally piffle and surface stuff only (akin to the emotional verbal diarrhoea and personality of the monstrous Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice). But I prefer to side with the definition given by a hugely popular online dictionary – 50 million unique monthly users worldwide, besides other impressive stats about the use of their site – as being expressive of or appealing to sentiment, especially the tender emotions and feelings, as love, pity, or nostalgia. So, while there is vulnerability in such feelings, there is clearly no justification for the term and experience itself to merit ridicule. Instead, it is a genuine expression of powerful, deep feelings, as defined. Well, that’s what you experience with this film. Fair enough? Hope so!
Considering the power of the film to make you suspend your disbelief – a rare ability nowadays of many Hollywood films – so that you believe you actually are witnessing the real world of Geishas from the period of the 30s-40s – it is all the more remarkable that none of the writers/producers/director is in any way Japanese: they’re all American. And I don’t mean this to sound patronising about the abilities of Americans to understand other cultures – eek – I appreciate some of the most famous anthropologists to date have been American. Anyway, as you’ll read in a few seconds below, two of the most important people to impact positively upon the film’s quality are also American (well, three in fact, when you take into count John Williams’ sumptuous music). Moving on from Williams, since he’s now been cited, how then did the movie manage to do this? First, because it’s based on the wonderful, compelling novel by Arthur Golden, of the same title and, just as importantly, if not more so, is the influence that Liza Dalby, cultural consultant to Memoirs, academic and memoirist, had on the film.
Back in 1975, Dalby was the first female outsider – i.e., non-Japanese woman – in fact – yes! – she’s an American – ever to gain training as a Geisha. (The only other outsider accepted, it seems, was Fiona Graham, an English woman, who entered the world of the Geisha in 2008 – and you’ll see from that link that she was misrepresented as being the first outsider to do so in 400 years of Japanese history; in 2011 she was compelled to leave that world and role, apparently, due to ‘clashes with fellow members’.) Not only this, but Dalby went to Japan in 1975 because of her Degree studies in anthropology and because she wanted to research the world of the Geishas. Not only did she succeed in being accepted into their world to do her research, she was also trained as and experienced the life of a Geisha, and even had a successful career as one. And, of course, all of that led to her highly successful memoir.
So because of her ability, her lived experience in that unique and closed world, and the huge benefit gained from her anthropological perspective, she was brilliant at giving sound advice, training and mentoring to the cast – most especially – and crew about all the elements that go into making a successful Geisha. From manners, personality, dance, charm, singing, voice, body language and movement, conversation, the culture and atmosphere of entertainment, the patterns of life in an okiya, Geisha dress, make-up, etc., Dalby seems to know it all inside-out and back-to-front. As a result, she was really able to empower the cast and crew to learn about and appreciate the detail and depth of thought and action that goes into that world – if you watch the feature documentaries included with the DVD, you will see the justification of this claim – and thereby the movie is even more convincing than it may otherwise have been without her co-operation (because the world of the Geisha is still effectively closed to outsiders, despite some memoirs). Thanks to Dalby’s mentoring, she ensures added depth and conviction to the acting, sets, cinematography and music.
The film focuses on the life of Chiyo, who we see at the start as a girl (nine years old), living with her sister, Satsu, their mother (who is dying from ill-health) and father, in an isolated Japanese village. The father sells the two girls because he is too poor and desperate to take care of them. Taking a long train journey, they arrive in Kyoto city and are then sold into two separate Geisha boarding houses in Gion, a renowned Geisha district. Over the course of the movie, we witness her many trials as Chiyo grows up, from being bullied and treated as a workhorse by Hatsumomo, a Geisha of the okiya, to facing the challenges of learning and mastering the ways of the Geisha in a ridiculously short space of time – thanks to being trained by Mameha, a famous Geisha, until Chiyo becomes the most famous of them all in Kyoto.
When Chiyo’s world changes because of the onslaught of WW2, we continue to follow her difficult journey until, at last, years later, she finds true love with a Japanese business man – the very same one whom she first met as a child living in Gion, when at that encounter she felt especially forsaken, sad, and hopeless for her future, and then for a time as a Geisha in training with Mameha, who introduces her to him and his co-business partner – and who was also the only one at that time to treat her with loving kindness.
So is it worth watching? Hello?! (ahem)
The acting, photography, pacing, script – all, and more – make this a sumptuous film to absorb, fall in love with, and absolutely sigh with happiness by the end. It is a touching, passionate (in every sense), romantic, wonderful love story, and for me it inspired the same intense emotions I experienced from reading Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (Wordsworth Classics), and her sister, Emily’s Wuthering Heights (Wordsworth Classics). The stunning visual beauty of kimonos of the Geishas and their remarkable talents and traditions are all amazing and fascinating to behold. In all ways it is a memorable film and is one of those rarities that, on its own – filmic – terms, not only complements and does justice to the original novel, but also transcends it through its impact on one’s other senses. So is this truly glorious, romantic, inspirational film, filled with tension, heartache, and – ultimately – love requited and achieved – worth watching? Ahem! And it’s much more, besides: it deserves the ultimate accolade of cinema: it’s a movie classic.
Want to learn/read more about Geishas, Japanese culture and society?
For those of you who, like me, absolutely love, love love Japanese culture and would like to learn more about their society, including the world of the Geishas, I would recommend the following excellent true memoirs and various cultural studies – books on art, literature, society and aesthetics. They’re all thoroughly enjoyable and full of insight; of course, this is a purely personal set of favourites, so I would welcome any feedback/recommendations from you about great books you’ve read that I’ve not included, if you can find a mo?). FYI, all links for the books are to Book Depository, the online book retailer, as it ships free worldwide and has an outstanding customer service (besides which, I can avoid the need otherwise to cite separate US/UK editions). As to editions listed, I have referred to those I believe are lowest in price while also retaining a durable quality. I hope this sounds fair.
- Geisha by Liza Dalby
- Geisha of Gion: The True Story of Japan’s Foremost Geisha: The Memoir of Mineko Iwasaki by Mineko Iwasaki
- The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture by Ruth Benedict (author). Ian Buruma has written an excellent foreword
- Understanding Japanese Society (a textbook/academic in tone but still great – a comprehensive picture of modern Japan) by Joy Hendry
- The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture by Roger Davies and Osamu Ikeno
- Japan Through the Looking Glass by Alan MacFarlane
- Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology by Donald Keene (note: this was last published in 1994, so there are no authors published after that year. Importantly, however, in his lifetime, Professor Keene was one of the foremost authorities on Japanese literature and he is an excellent guide, with great taste and understanding
- Two Japanese novelists to cite in particular, out of the thousands (sorry: simple explanation: it’s because they’re my two absolute favourites: they’re both extraordinary and both have been incredibly influential on Japanese literature at different periods, past and present):
- The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
- Novels by Kobe Abe – The Face of Another, The Woman in the Dunes (translated by David Mitchell – yes, that famous novelist extraordinaire), Box Man
- Japanese Art and Design by Gregory Irvine (author), Joe Earle (editor)
- Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence by Andrew Juniper
- Haiku: Japanese Art and Poetry by Judith Patt, Barry Till and Michiko Warkentyne (note: this a very low-cost hardback, beautifully published and printed by Pomegranate Books – actually, I believe all this publisher’s books are a joy to touch, hold and look at – and they just don’t seem to ‘do’ expensive!)
- Hokusai: Mountains and Water, Flowers and Birds by Matthi Forrer
- Japanese Architecture: A Short History by A. L. Sadler
- In Praise of Shadows by Juni’chiro Tanizaki (an excellent, reflective essay by one of Japan’s most famous novelists)