In 1920-50s Japan, a young girl is sold into slavery at a geisha house and must work hard to find her place in the world.
Whenever I finish reading a book, if there is a film adaptation, I usually will do my best to see how the two compare, and, as that opening might suggest, I have just finished reading Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” so of course I had to rewatch the film.
I say rewatch, but really, it felt like I was watching this film for the first time. I first saw this movie back when it first came out on DVD, and I remembered enjoying it (I enjoyed it enough to pick up a copy of the book and the Blu-Ray, both of which sat on my shelves untouched for the better part of a decade). I had largely forgotten the story of little Chiyo who grew up to the be the refined and exquisite Sayuri. All I remembered were my vague notions of approval towards the film.
I finished the book and found that I enjoyed it, but did not love it. While I love experiencing and learning about new cultures, and there was plenty of that in “Memoirs”, I found myself rejecting some of the themes of the story, some of which I will talk about later on in my review. Upon my rewatch of the film, I found that the themes I disagreed with in the story were further expounded upon the in the film, and in addition to that, movie-Saryuri makes choices that make her seem more like a damsel in distress than book-Sayuri, and I found that mischaracterization to be incredibly annoying.
Overall, I think both book and film are good. Neither are great, but neither were a waste of my time either. In fact, even though this movie mischaracterized Sayuri in a few scenes, and even though the overall story is good not great, I’m still likely to revisit this world, just because of the craft with which the world was built. This movie is absolutely beautiful. The sets; the costumes; the geishas themselves; all of it lends itself to a world that feels fantastical and extraordinary.
“We must not expect happiness, Sayuri. It is not something we deserve. When life goes well, it is a sudden gift; it cannot last forever.”
After their mother takes ill and their father is no longer able to care for them, sisters Chiyo (Sazuka Ohgo, “Oh Lucy!”) and Satsu (Samantha Futerman, “Across the Universe”) are sold into slavery. Chiyo goes to a geisha house owned by Granny (Kotoko Kawamura), Mother (Kaori Momoi, “Ghost in the Shell (2017)”), and Auntie (Tsai Chin, “Casino Royale”), where she meets the cruel geisha Hatsumomo (Li Gong, “Curse of the Golden Flower”) and also a young girl who will grow up to be Pumpkin (Yuki Kudo, “Mystery Train”), a girl that our protagonist has many dealings. As Chiyo adjusts to her new life in the geisha house, she finds herself resisting the teachings of the school and its instructors, but after a wealthy Chairman (Ken Watanabe, “Tampopo”) shows her kindness, she realizes that the life of the geisha might be her key to a life better than the one she’s living now. After she is taken under the watchful eye of the renowned geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh, “Crazy Rich Asians”), she takes on the name of Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang, “The Cloverfield Paradox”), and she begins to catch the eyes of many men important to Japanese culture, including the businessman Nobu (Koji Yakusho, “13 Assassins”), Dr. Crab (Randall Duk Kim, “The Matrix Reloaded”) and a Baron (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa,”The Last Emperor”).
Really the thing that I liked most about reading this book and watching this movie was experiencing a slice of culture I otherwise wouldn’t have ever thought about. The high-class geisha lifestyle is about as removed from my low-income midwesterner lifestyle as can be, and that’s exactly why I gravitated to a story like this. I love learning things about cultures, and sometimes the best way to do that is to immerse yourself in a story set in those worlds. Now, there are a few humps that I as a reader and a viewer had to get over before I could accept this story, and those humps are some of the reasons I gave this film an overall middling review. My first issue is that, while this is about a woman struggling through Japan, Arthur Golden, the writer of this book is a white male from America, as is Rob Marshall, the director of this film. I read a bit about Golden before I sat down to write this review, and I learned that he did study Japanese history, he spent a year in Japan, and he also consulted with a few geisha to correct any misconceptions he might’ve had about them. I’m sure Rob Marshall (director of “Chicago”) also did a fair amount of research, but I feel like this story probably could’ve been better told by a Japanese director, and it would’ve benefitted from actually being in Japanese. However, I realize that, this being an international best seller, it would make sense that we Americans would want to put our stamp on this story, and the fact that it was in English probably made it a lot more accessible for casual moviegoers. I understand why this movie is in English, but I still wish we‘d have received a Japanese version.
Let’s talk good stuff first. As I mentioned, this movie looks absolutely gorgeous. In 2006, this movie won Oscars for Cinematography, Art Direction, and Costume Design, and honestly that should be no surprise. The world of the geisha is dedicated to beauty and art. The word geisha itself means artist. Contrary to popular western belief, geishas are not prostitutes. They are essentially expertly trained hostesses, skilled in performances, educated in art, music and dance. This film does a wonderful job of bringing that world to screen. We get glimpses of some of their sacred tea ceremonies, we watch sequences of their exquisite dances, listen to beautiful lilting melodies strummed on their samisens, and catch flashes of the superstitions that run through the geisha world. The world of this film is captivating, and I found I was all too eager to fall into it.
The world of this movie is so captivating that it really helps the pacing of the film. This is a long movie, nigh two and a half hours, but I didn’t feel that length as much as I expected to. This movie moves fluidly, easily, from one scene to another. I was never bored, in fact I was always eager to see what came next, all the way through to the end of the movie. This is a very enjoyable film, even if it isn’t a great one.
So, now some of my problems with the movie, and here I have to throw up a huge spoiler tag because I’m going to reveal a twist.
Near the end of the film, it is revealed that after the Chairman (Wantanabe’s character) took pity on Sayuri when she was a child and showed her kindness, the Chairman then instructed Mameha to teach Sayuri how to become a geisha. The chairman then follows Sayuri’s progress until he can become her danna (her sponsor- she would essentially become the Chairman’s mistress, and no longer entertain proposals for ‘nightly encounters’ from other men). So, really, if you stop to think about this story for even a few minutes, it becomes a story of a young girl who was groomed by an older man until he saw she was good enough for him… It’s a little disquieting, especially when viewed through the mischaracterizations this film heaps onto Sayuri’s character. In the book, after the Chairman shows Sayuri kindness, she obsesses over the symbol of what the Chairman represents; wealth, a way out of her hardships. In the movie, the Chairman becomes the literal figure of Sayuri’s desires.
Normally, I try not to let differences between books and movies bug me too much, but if there are times when I feel as if the adaption has completely misunderstood authorial intent, then I have to point those issues out out. In the book, Sayuri’s yearning for the life the Chairman has makes sense- anyone would want a better life than they had were they in her shoes. In the film, by making Sayuri obsess over the chairman, it makes her less powerful. She is no longer a girl trying to find her way in the world, but a girl waiting for rescue from a man, a man, I might add, that took interest in a thirteen-year-old girl.
As this sort of story happened (not this one particularly, but many geisha experienced similar events in their lives), I can’t completely fault the film for depicting such a story, but to portray the events so casually, as if what Sayuri were entering into an agreement based purely on love, is a total mischaracterization. I honestly would’ve preferred this movie to be rated R, because some of the harder scenes they had to cut out would’ve really helped Sayuri’s character seem stronger. Sayuri’s story is full of struggle, and in undercutting those hardships the film also undercuts her character. This film seemed eager to show the hardships near the beginning, but as Sayuri grew, the film focused more on the glitz and glamor, when really, the hardships were always there.
This was a decent adaptation of a decent book, and honestly, I’ll probably revisit this movie again, just because it is so gorgeous and I like the world, even if I don’t completely agree with all of the themes and implications. Despite the fact that this was an Americanized version of a Japanese story, “Memoirs” has the ability to pull a veil back and reveal a world lost to the sands of time. It might not be a perfect film, but it is absolutely worth your time.
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