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Memoirs of a Geisha Review

By Shawn McKenzie 12/23/2005

Is it possible that I don’t have any love in my heart…or is that love overshadowed by a boring, albeit beautiful-looking, movie?  That’s the impression I got watching the screening of Memoirs of a Geisha and the guilt trip laid upon me afterwards by people who said that I have no love in my heart for a movie that is essentially a chick flick.

In 1929, Japanese sisters Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) and Satsu (Samantha Futerman) are sold by their poor father Sakamoto (Mako) to a stranger named Mr. Tanaka (Togo Igawa) in the middle of the night.  Their mother (Elizabeth Sung) is near death, and Sakamoto can’t pay the medical bills in the small fishing village called Yoroido that they live in.  Tanaka takes them to the Gion district in Kyoto.  He sells older sister Satsu to a common brothel and 9-year-old Chiyo to an okiya, a house for geisha, run by Mother Nitta (Kaori Momoi) and Granny Nitta (Kotoko Kawamura), mainly because of her unusual blue-grey eyes.  Mother puts her in the attic, where she lives with another young girl named Pumpkin (Zoe Weizenbaum.)  She and Pumpkin work as maids in the okiya, and they train to be future geishas.  A geisha is a trained dancer, singer, and musician, as well as witty conversationalist.  Her purpose is to entertain wealthy businessmen, but they are not prostitutes (they give the illusion of sex, but they don’t actually have sex with them.)  The okiya’s best wage earner, Hatsumomo (Gong Li), is jealous of Chiyo’s potential, so she sets out to make sure that the girl never has a chance to make it as a geisha.  Hatsumomo, who is drunk at the time, forces Chiyo to paint on an expensive kimono owned by Hatsumomo’s rival, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh.)  Chiyo is whipped for it, and she thinks there is no way that she will ever become a geisha.  She does try to follow Hatsumomo around and learn how to become a geisha though.  In one of her devious attempts to get Chiyo in trouble, Hatsumomo tells the girl where Satsu is living currently and arranges a reunion with her.  Chiyo finds out that Satsu is living as a sex slave, but Satsu makes plans with her to escape on a boat together the next day.  That night, Chiyo witnesses Hatsumomo fooling around with her boyfriend Koichi (Karl Yune.)  A geisha is not free to love, or to pursue her own destiny, so having unpaid sex with anyone is strictly forbidden.  In an attempt to cover her own tracks, Hatsumomo frames Chiyo by sticking a scarf in Chiyo’s dress and accusing her of stealing.  After Mother whips Chiyo, she tells Mother about Hatsumomo’s dalliances with Koichi.  After Mother confirms this, she bolts all doors and windows, and she tells Hatsumomo never to see Koichi again.  The bolting also means that Chiyo can’t get out to see Satsu, so in her attempt to escape, she injures herself.  After paying Chiyo’s medical bills, she thinks that the girl may not be worth becoming a geisha, and she thinks that her only use will be as a house slave.  Upset about her fate in life, she has a chance encounter with The Chairman (Ken Watanabe), a handsome and successful businessman who is accompanied by two of his geishas (Navia Nguyen and Natsuo Tomita.)  He buys her a sweet ice and tells her that she needs to dust herself off and start over again.  She keeps his handkerchief and vows to become a geisha…if for no other reason than to be with The Chairman again.  Six years later at the age of 15, Chiyo (Ziyi Zhang) is still a maid at the Nitta okiya.  Her roommate Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh) is being groomed to have Mother choose her as the house’s lead geisha, and Hatsumomo has selected her to be her maiko, an apprentice geisha.  Mameha comes back and offers a deal to Mother to take Chiyo under her wing and serve as her geisha mentor.  When Mother hesitates, Mameha sweetens the deal by offering to pay double the money of Chiyo’s debts if Chiyo fails to become the top earner within six months.  Mother accepts the deal, and Mameha puts Chiyo through an intense training course in how to become a geisha.  Mameha renames her Sayuri, and she teaches her the ins and outs of being a geisha, like how to stop a man in his tracks with a single glance.  She also auctions off Sayuri’s virginity to the highest bidder, in which she will use to pay off all of Sayuri’s debts and become independent.  Mameha’s virginity sold for a record amount in her day, and it allowed her to become a free agent geisha from then on.  This becomes a little bit of an oxymoron, since they claim not to be prostitutes, yet they are willing to auction off their virginity.  Anyway…she has Sayuri attract some big name clients, such as war veteran and successful businessman Nobu (Kôji Yakusho), The Baron (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), and Dr. Crab (Randall Duk Kim.)  She sucks up to them, and then she gives them a plum in a box, which symbolizes her desire to have the men bid on her.  Nobu, a friend and business partner to The Chairman who has a large burn scar on his right cheek, doesn’t really like geishas, but he is attracted to Sayuri.  Hatsumomo once again interferes by convincing The Baron to look at Sayuri’s “merchandise.”  Nothing happens, but rumors abound, and it sours Dr. Crab’s opinion of her.  She ends up commanding the largest bid ever for her virginity though, which prompts Mother to appoint her the Top Geisha, which makes Hatsumomo extremely jealous, and she takes out her jealousy in a catastrophic way.  More years go by, and World War II rolls around.  Kyoto has become a different place, and it is filled with many Americans.  Any woman with a kimono calls herself a geisha now, and they act more like prostitutes than walking works of art.  Mameha comes to Sayuri and asks her to help her in talking a couple of American businessmen into doing some business with The Chairman and Nobu.  They want to rebuild their once thriving business with Colonel Derricks (Ted Levine) and Lt. Hutchins (Paul Adelstein), and they have asked the two top geishas in Kyoto to entertain them and convince them to secure a big business deal with their company.  Unfortunately, Nobu is still in love with Sayuri, and he wants to become her danna, a man who had adopted a formal relationship with a geisha.  Sayuri still loves The Chairman though, and he seems to love her as well, but he feels indebted to Nobu for saving his life one time in war.  Torn by obligations and her love for her beloved Chairman, she doesn’t know anything else other than to be the best geisha ever.

I didn’t have high expectations coming into this movie.  For every plus it had, like the performances of Zhang, Yeoh, Watanabe, and Li (an actress I had never heard of before this movie), there were many minuses.

Let’s start off with my fears about the movie I had in my initial research.  First, Rob Marshall, making his second theatrical directing effort, helmed this movie.  His first one, 2002’s Oscar-winning musical Chicago, was one of my least favorite Oscar winners of all time (though it doesn’t rival 1985’s Out of Africa or 1996’s The English Patient in the dullness factor.)  Second, there was the length.  Clocking in at two hours and 24 minutes, it plods along very slowly.  I can tolerate a long movie, as long as the wait is worth it by giving us something to see, aside from stunning set pieces.  Third, the trailers didn’t exactly prompt me to want to see it…but that’s another matter.  It was obviously marketed to appeal to the huge fan base of the controversial 1997 novel, written by an American author named Arthur Golden (more on him later), so the people who saw the trailer and read the book were the most likely to be excited to see the film.

After seeing the movie, I had additional minuses.  Since I already knew about its length, I was hoping that it wouldn’t matter and that there would be something worth watching.  From its tragic beginning to its schmaltzy end, the movie ran at a snail’s pace.  The next thing I noticed was the fact that all of the actors spoke English with Japanese accents.  I hadn’t heard of this movie being subtitled, so when it started out with the characters speaking in only Japanese without any subtitles, I thought they had the wrong print at first.  They finally settled into the characters speaking English, and it felt phony at that point.  Despite the growing popularity of foreign films, American audiences still can’t handle watching a movie with subtitles throughout most of it.  That presented a little bit of a quandary for me.  If it had been subtitled, I might have been bored even further.  You never know though, because I may have been more interested hearing the characters speak in their native tongue.

As I mentioned earlier, the acting wasn’t bad (though I bet it could have been better if the actors had been allowed to speak Japanese.)  Zhang is nominated for Best Actress at the Golden Globes (one of two nominations this movie earned, the other one being John Williams’s score.)  Even though those stunning eyes are clearly blue contacts, she works them for all they are worth.  Yeoh and Watanabe are the veterans that most audiences will recognize, and they do credible jobs.  Li is the standout though as the catty bad girl whose life goal seems to be to take her rival Sayuri down.  Her jealous rants are the only parts of the movie that spark any action.

The novel and the movie have sparked controversy from the start.  Golden portrayed geishas as high-class prostitutes (kind of like Inara from the wonderful FOX TV show “Firefly” and its excellent spin-off movie Serenity.)  The character of Sayuri was based on Mineko Iwasaki, Japan’s number one geiko (geisha) until her sudden retirement at the age of 29.  Golden thanked Iwasaki by name in the book’s acknowledgements, but this was a breach of her anonymity agreement with him.  She was also offended by the portrayal of geishas in the book.  According to her, there is no custom of auctioning a geisha’s virginity to the highest bidder.  She sued Golden for breach of contract and defamation of character for an undisclosed sum, and the case was settled out of court.  As for the movie, the main controversy has been that Marshall chose to cast Chinese actors instead of Japanese ones.  According to him, he just wanted to have the best actor play the parts, and he didn’t distinguish between Chinese and Japanese.  If Marshall wanted the “best actor” to play the parts, why didn’t he cast a white, black, Native-American, Indian, or Hispanic actor to play the parts?  I think it is a little racist to assume that all Asian actors are the same.  Most American audiences won’t really care, but it might hurt the Asian box office a little if they are offended enough.  This reminds me of how Native Americans were portrayed until recently.  In 1970, Arthur Penn directed a movie starring Dustin Hoffman called Little Big Man.  He cast Chief Dan George in a significant Native American role, making him one of the first prominent Native American characters to be actually played by a real Native American (they had been mostly played by white actors until that point.)  In 1990, actor Kevin Costner directed and starred in Dances with Wolves, in which he cast mostly Native American actors and had them speak in their native tongue, with subtitles (they had different dialects for the different tribes, but it was a step up from the white actors who used face paint and spoke in broken English.)  Maybe filmmakers will attempt to rid the film world of “Orientalism” (a term coined by outspoken Palestinian activist and social critic Edward Said) someday, but it doesn’t look like it will stop with this movie.

I wish that I could have had more of an interest in Memoirs of a Geisha, because it might earn me points with a potential girlfriend, but I can’t pretend to like it.  Others might be offended by the controversy, but I’m just glad that I didn’t have to pay to see this overlong epic myself.  Almost every female friend that I have who has read the book loves it, so they will most likely be the ones who will enjoy it, but this is a memoir that I don’t want to see again.

Get the soundtrack score composed by John Williams and featuring performances by Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, and the Pro Musica Nipponia Ensemble:

Get the 1997 novel written by Arthur Golden:

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Ratings System:


Catch this movie at the theater if you can...

Wait until it comes out on video...

Wait until it plays on HBO, Showtime, Starz, etc...

Demand your money back, even if you saw it for free!

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