Cinema Signal:

Autobiography of a Geisha
by Sayo Masuda

. "Hannari: Geisha Modern"

As a followup to Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha"--a mesmerizing novel about a retired Geisha looking back on her life's work--and the extraordinary 2005 movie made of it, this documentary works well as an educative followup without the drama. Picking up on these dedicated ladies where the book and film left off, it details how they live and function in modern day Japan, hanging on by their kimono strap.

In a series of interviews with dance and music masters, aged queens of the Geisha world and novices in training, it clarifies how the practice is maintained, financed and fit into a society that still values its traditions but without much in the way of universal acclaim.

The emphasis is on training in the old styles of dance, its slow rythms, its gestures, poses, tableaus and symbolic lines of movement in the magnificent kimonos that are, themselves, classic art forms. But the life of today's "geiko" isn't 24/7 performance and, when not on stage she will occupy her time serving clients in teahouses.

The clash of tradition and modernity--a story of diminishing support and outside influence--is expressed by the philosophical ruminations of one choreographer who laments over limited resources, and by one Geisha's stark break from traditional rules with a 2nd career as a jazz and pop singer who enjoys a record contract and travels to New York in between geisha gigs.

The nature of the disciplined subculture is made visually stunning when a single geisha walks alone, past shopping districts and alleyways, in her brilliant ornamentation and makeup, en route to a performance or dinner appointment. Anywhere else she'd be assumed to be on her way to a costume party. Here, the expressions on the street people as she passes illustrates the special strata and regard these women occupy among their fellow citizens. Imagine a revered painting come to life.

Never mentioning the issue of sexual services or, even, of marriage, the devotional and artistic aspects of the subject are what writer-director Miyuki Sohara dwells on with academic devotion. Perhaps the access granted to her for this project came with imposed restrictions, but her proper and serious little film does little to reverse the tradition's waning vitality and support. Awkwardness in storytelling, no apparently planned structure and the lack of thematic organization reveals an amateur at work, though it does afford a glimpse into something whose 15th century roots make it a unique and mesmerizing anachronism. It is narrated by Maxwell Caulfield and writer Kentaro Kajino.

Sohara's noble goal may have been to dispel the titillation commonly brought to mind by the mention of "Geisha" and get people--particularly disrespectful males--to click into the serious and complex dedication behind its charm and artistry, however stiff and formal in style. There's value in the documentation of something that continues centuries-old practices which haven't ceased to fascinate and charm and it's nice that there's still room for it in Japanese culture.

Hannari: Geisha Modern is likely to hit the mark of appreciation mostly for Japanese historians, government censors and bookish observers. Boys looking for more will be grossed out by the ceremony and dry social convention. Geisha, Geisha, Geisha. There, guys. Now fugedaboudit.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner 
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