Saturday, December 17, 2005

Memoirs of a Geisha: Hollywood Style

Before I start talking about the problems I have with this movie, I should first say that it was visually stunning and almost certainly entertaining. If you have wanted to see this movie, you should by all means go. There are some really brilliant shots, the cinematography is enchanting and the lighting is beautiful. Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li are breath-taking, and Yuki Kudoh and Kaori Momoi are a pleasure to watch. Don't let these ramblings deter you in any way. But be prepared...The more you know about Japan, the less you will enjoy Hollywood's version of Memoirs of a Geisha.

When I heard that the now famous book by Arthur Golden was going to be made into a movie, I was ecstatic. My hopes quickly turned to fears when I heard that the main actresses would not be Japanese, and that it would be shot in English, which seemed to be the first stabs at any hope for authenticity. The previews for the movie, mysterious and captivating as they were, boasted more than enough cultural inaccuracies to almost force me to swear not to see it. As time went by, hype continued to build, and my curiosity grew. I found myself eager to catch a glimpse of the girls of Gion through Hollywood's eyes.

The debate over the casting of three Chinese (ethnically) actresses in traditionally Japanese roles have been raging since the movie's inception. I think this argument is bunk, since Zhang Ziyi has been cast as a Japanese princess in a Japanese production of "Princess Raccoon (Operetta Tanuki Goten)," far, far away from the evil reach of Hollywood (although very few people outside of Japan would know that). Though their cultures are significantly different from one another, they are actors, acting. After seeing the movie, I can say without a doubt that Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeow and Gong Li do just as well depicting geisha as Yuki Kudoh and Kaori Momoi (Japanese actresses in the roles of Pumpkin and Okaasan).

The weakness of the screenplay definitely required this holy triad of Asian cinema to carry it. Zhang, Li and Yeoh are skillful enough to bring their characters, as well as this secret, fantasy world to life.

Knowing anything about Kyoto or geisha culture, however, will not help you enjoy this film. It is riddled with cultural inaccuracies. For example, the hair. No respectable geisha would ever be seen walking around Gion with her hair down, as Hatsumomo and Mameha do, let alone perform in that manner, as Sayuri does in her debut. When their hair is up, it is not in the style of the geisha, who wear wigs, or maiko, who wear it in a very different fashion. When they show the girls putting on their make-up, they have their hair pulled back and secured with a net and band, which is used beneath their wigs, which they never wear!

While the promotional photos of Sayuri's debut dance are stunning, the scene itself is a complete departure from the flower and willow world, even the one Marshall has tried to create. It’s modern, chaotic, and experimental: In short it’s everything that geisha are not. What makes it even worse is the preceding scene of Sayuri dancing in a traditional teahouse, similar to the way geisha actually perform. Then there are the scenes of her training, which imitate the traditional style. Even people with absolutely no knowledge of geisha are bound to be confused by the Spring Dance debut after seeing these scenes, just as I was. I think very few people will be able to appreciate whatever Rob Marshall was trying to do there.

The movie skips over many important parts of the story, especially in the beginning. It opens with Tanaka convincing Sayuri's father to sell his daughters, and then them being ripped away from their home. There is no mention of young Chiyo's first encounter with Tanaka, or her subsequent feelings for him, which sheds light on her future attraction to the Chairman. It also ignores the scene in which Chiyo sees Mr. Tanaka captivated and entertained by a country geisha, which I think would have been an interesting addition if only in passing.

While Hatsumomo was unmistakably evil, I think some of the added scenes in this version took away from the impeccable character of Mameha. For example, after Sayuri is undressed by the Baron (Zhang deserves an award for this scene alone), a new scene was added between her and Mameha, who understood the baron's intentions for inviting her in the first place. Mameha is angry, and obviously jealous of Sayuri, assuming the baron has had his way with her. She chastises Sayuri for ruining all their plans, saying that if she has lost her virginity before her mizuage she is "Worthless". Whether or not the men bidding on Sayuri's mizuage would have agreed, I found this extremely contradictory, since this insult was hurled from the mouth another geisha-- the same geisha that tells Sayuri that "we are not courtesans...we sell our art, not our bodies...we are judged as living works of art."

Perhaps the most disturbing departure from the story is near the end, when Sayuri accompanies the chairman, Nobu, and their associate to Okinawa. In Hollywood's version, this important business client is an American serviceman who has seen a picture of Sayuri and wants to meet her. Nobu agrees to arrange this meeting, and when Sayuri is introduced to him at the airfield, she greets him with "hajimemashite" (nice to meet you in Japanese) before engaging him in witty conversation- completely in English! Since almost the entire film is in English, you may think it’s not important. As long as the characters were in the "hanamachi" surrounded by other "Japanese", it is somewhat possible to suspend belief and imagine that they are communicating in their own language. But when a foreigner shows up, and then we are expected to believe that a geisha, with no exposure to the world outside of Japan, is suddenly able to entertain him with her witty conversation, that's stretching it. As if this unnecessary inclusion of foreigners wasn't enough, he later propositions her, offering to pay her for some "alone time", which she flat out refuses but later decides to suffer though in hopes of freeing herself from Nobu's affections.

Why was it necessary to use a foreigner to play this role? In the book, it is a Japanese man's interest in Sayuri which Nobu hopes will save his business. It is that same man that propositions Sayuri, and who she later seduces. Changing this character into a foreigner who would presumably only see her as a high class prostitute is stereotypically cliché, especially since it was actually a Japanese man in the book. It would have been much less cliché and more and interesting to stick to the story and show the misunderstanding of geisha that permeates their own culture.

Another completely unrealistic scene occurs after Sayuri returns home from her mizuage to find Hatsumomo in her room. The two engage in the inevitable kimono clad cat fight, knocking over a lamp and starting a fire. Sayuri sees the flames and attempts to extinguish it, while Hatsumomo wiggs out and begins throwing lamps, spreading the fire throughout the wooden okiya. The scene blurs out in a glow of flames obscuring her wicked eyes, and transitions to her disappearing into the foggy (or smokey) streets of the hanamachi, never to be seen again. Sayuri watches her from the second floor of the okiya! How did they survive? How did the Okiya, or the rest of the Hanamachi for that matter? There would have been no way to save the okiya and all its priceless heirlooms from the fire. Yet they continue on, without the loss of a single kimono, as if nothing ever happened.

Why didn't they choose to show the scene of Hatsumomo going mad with jealousy over the famous kabuki actor at the party? It definitely would have been more interesting and more believable!

Overall, the mediocre quality of this movie is due largely to the embarrassing screenplay. The strong performance of the actors give the streamlined script a subtlety and emotion that can be truly moving (the final scene is absolutely beautiful), but it could have been so much better...


tiseb said...

Thank you for this great review! I am still eager to see this movie, mainly for the cinematography and atmosphere, but I think you have made very fair points.

Also, it will be nice to see what Rob Marshall has been able to do with his choreographic skills — I love what he did with Chicago :-)

Acrix said...

Seems like there's lots of deviation from the original story~ Oh yar, noted a spelling mistake on Chiyo where u typed Chiho :)

Can;t wait to watch the movie by next month when it;s screening in cinema~

pAnDaR~ said...

ah... your review was good. i loved the book, and despite what reviews claimed that it made geishas looked cheap, i had think it made people more curious about geishas...

however, having such deviations from the book and some of them with strange factual "inabilities" like the fire at the teahouse (geisha house?) made me think twice abt watching the movie.

one of my favourite scenes was also hatsumomo going mad and the jealousy as well. i wonder why they changed it =/

Patrick Leong said...

a very good review. i can't agree with you less. i think as well if one has not read the book, it will be sort of difficult to really follow the story. many interesting part omitted in the movie. i would give an overall B-. i am now reading haruki murakami's kafka on the shore. it is a good book too.

Anonymous said...

So, I've read your review about 'Memoirs of A Geisha'. To be honest, I was shocked to know that the whole Amami part when Syuri tried to seduce the Japanese vice minister....was replaced by a western businessman!! So degrading! Geisha are NOT high-class prostitutes. I've been studying about the geisha culture for years, I adore them, I know a lot about their highly respectable tradition, and I'm fully aware that they're the 'women of art'. NOT high-class prostitutes. OMG. The movie is just full of.....misconceptions.

Mom said...

Fantastic review, writing and pictures, as usual. Terrific job. Mucho Talent! Have a safe trip.

Melissa said...

Tiseb: Arigaout! I look forward to hearing what you think after you see the movie!

Acrix: Thanks for the heads up! I have about 5 Chihos in my school...It was bound to happen! After you see the movie, please let me know what you think, too!

Pandar: I know, right? Hatsumomo flipping out on the flamboyant kabuki king had all the makings of great cinema! I really dont know what they were thinking...Maybe someday someone will remake this movie, shoot it completely in Japanese, with Japanese actresses, and hire me to be a consultant! :)

Patrick: Yeah, I was trying to think what it would have been like to see this movie without reading the book first. I couldnt tell what I learned about the characters from the movie, but I felt like I knew them pretty well after reading the book 3 times. I dont think the movie was very loyal to their characters, and probably didnt do as well at developing them. Since I saw the movie, I started reading the book again :p

Mom: Id like to know what you think about the film too, since we got to know the geisha of Kyoto so well during your visit!

Melissa said...


Thank you for understanding. I really couldn't understand why the writers chose to alter that part of the story. Why would they proliferate the idea that only foreigners see geisha as prostitutes?

To be honest with you, I think there are quite a few more foreigners that are knowledgeable about Geisha culture than there are Japanese (as knowledegable as one can be about something so vieled in mystery). Geisha are just as exotic and mysterious to their own countrymen as they are to `outsiders`, and their are just as many misconceptions about them in Japan as their are elsewhere.

To show this lack of respect and understanding WITH IN their own culture, would shed much more light on the mystery surrounding these women, and the difficulties they face in their work on a daily basis.

Anonymous said...

Yes, that is true. I think, to some extent, the secrecy that still surrounds the hanamachi until today is a tad unfortunate for the geiko and maiko themselves. It leads to a LOT of misunderstanding, and even many native Japanese still mistake them as not much different than the 'oiran'. It's a pity if this kind of misunderstanding and misconception will result at the drastic drop of maiko applicants in the future....Considering that even now, their numbers are constantly dwindling.

Jennifer Whetzel said...

Melissa -
Great review. I read the book just before I moved to Japan in 2000. That's just enough time for me to forget the details of the book so that I'm not too disappointed when I see the movie. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing it - even if it's just to appreciate the cinematography and the gorgeous scenery.

Anonymous said...

That was a very very good review. I can now understand why so many have been and are hesitante or are down right angry about this movie. I've been curious to see it, but I'll think I'll wait till it comes out on dvd. I too wished that they stuck to the actual story. Again great review

hpeters said...


An interesting review which was kind of predictable knowing your love of all things Japanese and geisha.

Just to be different I will go in to bat for the film by saying that as an American you know that the name of the game is to get bums on seats in the picture theatres (in the USA).

You have Arthur Golden, an heir ? to the NY Times publishing empire, in his forties, having done not much with his life, decides to become a writer. Goes to Kyoto/Japan for research. He speaks to Peter MacIntosh and spends some time with Mineko Iwasaki.

He goes home and writes his book. I am only guessing but the first draft is probably a bit of a dud so he is told to spice it up a bit to be able to make it a best seller. He completely rewrites the book, its published, and surprise, surprise it makes the NY Times best seller list for over a year (I think?).

Steven Spielberg gets the film rights and hollywood’s best get to work on making it a blockbuster. I think the whole production team spent flew over and spent one week in Kyoto/Japan copying everything and reproducing it in Hollywood. The lone Sakura tree alone cost USD$100,000 to reproduce and plop in Golden Gate Park for the Hanami scene on the Baron’s estate.

I am not sure if the DVD is out yet but a got an early copy in Beijing with Special Features that include a one commentary track by director Rob Marshall and co-producer John Deluca and another commentary track by the production team of costume designer, production designer and editor.

Hope I provided some kind of defense of the film but if you can get the DVD and listen to their comments you will see what has to be done to make the movie successful.

Help up the good work and enjoy your time in Japan…

P.S. There are other places to go other than Kyoto.

Anonymous said...


I am not japaneese nor chineese and even I am not an expert on Geiko's life I made a very big difference between the film and the book.
I was really disappointed about the movie even I didn't expected to review the same story of the book (Holliwood always changes this according potential public expectations). I was totally disappointed for the same reasons of Melissa. Moreover, the film would have get as much success if it had been performed with japaneese actors, even they were unknown: this story was a best seller, not a new one so success was already there. Everybody expected to see real Geiko attitudes (dance) and looking, not chineese actors and Holliwood fictions. Anyway, there was a great work of pictures and colors. But I won't by the DVD, I would prefer to read the book again. :)

Have a nice day