Thursday, 31 March 2016

Film Review & Theme Park: Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)


© Columbia Pictures | Source: tokyofox

USA; 145 min.; drama, history, romance
Director: Rob Marshall
Writing: Robin Swicord
Cinematography: Dion Beebe
Cast:  Zhang Ziyi, Ken Watanabe, Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh, Youki Kudoh, Suzuka Ohgo

A story like mine should never be told. For my world is as forbidden as it is fragile. Without its mysteries it cannot survive. I certainly wasn't born to the life of a geisha. Like so much in my strange life, I was carried there by the current. -- Sayuri (Narration)

March is almost over and Women’s History Month is coming to a close. The movie I chose is Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) about Sayuri Nitta, a small town child who managed to rise on the social ladder thanks to her unusual eye-colour, her diligence and some help by fate. 

Source: immortalgeisha
Arthur Golden, who’s eponymous novel the movie is based on, modelled Sayuri loosely on the retired geisha Mineko Iwasaki. However, after publishing the novel, Iwasaki sued Golden for breach of contract. During their interview, he had assured her that he would protect her anonymity, but then mentioned her in the book’s acknowledgements. Since secrecy is an integral part in the life of a geisha, Iwasaki feared for her good name and even received death threats. She distanced herself from the portrayal of Sayuri - not because it was untrue, but because Sayuri was too obviously based on her, though in a way that did not correspond to reality. For example, some events she considered positive were rendered in a negative way, to the point of even offending her and her profession. 

So Memoirs of a Geisha is not about an actual, historical character, but it still gives insight into the way women in Japan lived in the 20th Century (although from a slightly too western-ish point of view). Even knowing that a geisha is an artist and not a prostitute, the somewhat negative depictions of every male character, save for the Chairman, whom Sayuri is in love with, leave you with a bitter taste. Not thinking of geisha as prostitutes is especially hard, with the images of Sayuri’s mizuage in mind. In the movie, the mizuage is a rite of passage, during which an apprentice geisha, a maiko, sells her virginity to the highest bidder in order to become a real geisha. Sounds a lot like selling your body and not your art, doesn’t it? Yes, it does and no, this is not what happened. The mizuage is not about defloration but a new haircut and that’s just one of the movie’s many inaccuracies. So if you are looking for authentic information about the delicate role of a geisha, neither the book nor the movie should be a part of your primary sources. But they are both beautiful pieces of art and allow us a glance at a long lost world, shrouded in mystery and hard to understand with our cultural background, and that was enough for me to make the movie a part of our Women’s History Month. 

That said, let’s move on from the background to the actual movie. As children Chiyo Sakamoto (Suzuka Ohgo) and her older sister Satsu (Samantha Futerman) are taken away from their poor family and sold to geisha houses, so called okiyas, in Kyoto’s most famous geisha district Gion. Little Chiyo ends up in the Nitta okiya, while her less attractive sister is sold off to a brothel. The main geisha of the okiya, Hatsumomo (Gong Li), renowned for her beauty and wickedness, sees a potential future rival in Chiyo and goes out of her way to put obstacles in the little girl’s way, hindering her from becoming a geisha. After having missed her one chance at escaping with her sister, Chiyo realises that she will probably never see her again and will spend the rest of her life as a serving girl. Visibly downcast she walks through the streets, when a stranger she comes to know as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), gives her money, wrapped in a handkerchief. He treats her to ice cream and offers words of encouragement to raise her spirits. Moved by so much kindness, Chiyo donates all the money to a local shrine, praying to one day become a geisha and have a chance to see the Chairman again.

© Columbia Pictures | Source: iwatchedthismovie
Time passes, and while Chiyo’s fellow maid Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh) becomes a geisha under Hatsumomo’s tutelage, there seems to be no hope for Chiyo of ever advancing from her role as a serving girl. That is until one day Gion’s most famous geisha and Hatsumomo’s rival Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) shows interest in Chiyo and decides to adopt her as her little sister. Chiyo becomes a geisha and receives a new name: Sayuri. And while her heart is sparked by new hope of seeing the Chairman again, Sayuri suffers greatly under the rivalry with Hatsumomo, who is determined to make her life a living hell.

There is a lot of drama, rivalry, intrigue and unrequited love going on, and we have a strong female heroine, who is unwilling to accept her lot in life and does whatever it takes to fulfil her dreams. This is especially remarkable if you consider that in old Japan women were clearly inferior to men in terms of social hierarchy. Yet the movie shows how geisha make use of the talents given to them by nature like their beauty, wits and female charm to manipulate the men around them. 
© Columbia Pictures | Source: artimagesfrom

While the plot as such is entertaining enough, what really makes this movie a special gem is the beautiful cinematography. It’s really not surprising that Memoirs of a Geisha received three Academy Awards (Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design). While watching the movie, you can just blind out the big city hullaballoo going on around you and dive straight into the mesmerising world of 20th-century Japan, with its foreign and thus all the more fascinating traditions and values, the beautiful leading ladies (who happen to be Chinese and not Japanese, which is definitely a reason for criticism), draped in lavish kimonos and not to forget the scenery (most of it filmed in California, though).
© Columbia Pictures | Source: hayochifabricfilms
Like I said at the beginning, this isn’t the kind of movie to watch for accurate information about life in Japan’s past, but if it’s just about fulfilling escapist fantasies, go right ahead and prepare to be enchanted.

Rating: 

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