Memoirs of a Geisha
by Arthur Golden
"Memoirs of a Geisha"
With nothing more under his directorial belt than this film and his debut picture, "Chicago," Rob Marshall has more than demonstrated his great eye and taste. Even though Steven Spielberg once almost took the helm, the picture that we have here indicates that Marshall was the perfect man to bring Arthur Golden's amazing book to the screen. The credit for an exemplary adaptation is, of course, shared by screenwriter Robin Swicord, who found a way to hit every one of the dramatic turns, emotional depths, and richness of detail in the best selling novel. Add to that two of the most beautiful women in the world (Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi in my humble opinion), a world class cast, and all the cinematic elements necessary for a magical visual realization.
The central figure is Chiyo, (later named Sayuri Nitta for her patron and her Geisha house), who narrates her story (Shizuko Hoshi). As a young girl (spunky Suzuka Ohgo) and the younger daughter of an impoverished fisherman whose wife is dying, she's sold and spirited away with her sister to the Gion district of Kyoto, where she finds herself painfully separated from her sibling and a virtual slave in a Geisha House. Dominating the place is "Mother" (Kaori Momoi) but the one whose income is keeping the business afloat is the Geisha star of the premises, Hatsumomo (Gong Li).
Hatsumomo's reknown for singular beauty is nearly uncontested in the Geisha quarter and she's known far and wide. But, she's also an aging prima donna with a cautionary eye to potential threats. Early on, she provokes newcomer Chiyo by forbidding her to enter her room or touch her. Sensing rivalry ahead, she promotes Chiyo's liason with her sister so that they might escape and be out of her hair. But it goes awry for Chiyo, and the manipulative Geisha is stuck with her nominal house enemy.
Crying on a bridge, one day, Chiyo is spotted by The Chairman (Ken Watanabe), a fashionable man who cuts a handsome figure with with his two Geisha accompanying him to a play. But his sensitivity is as great as his eye, and he befriends the sad girl with his handkerchief to dry her eyes and a cone of sweet ices to raise her spirits. She's never experienced such kindness before and will never forget the man who offered it. Her heart and all her energies are now directed at the sensitive benefactor.
As she grows closer to womanhood (now played by Zhang Ziyi), confirming Hatsumomo's worst fears, her elder's enmity toward her takes the form of embarrassing her at every opportunity. Exploiting her youthful gullibility, she provokes Chiyo into marring a borrowed kimono from a nearby Geisha house run by Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), a stately woman who holds the record for the most money paid a Geisha. When Chiyo returns the dishonored garment, Mameha is outraged.
But, knowing the devious nature of Chiyo's role model, she puts the truth together and repays the favor by adopting Chiyo as her disciple in a deal with Mother. The graceful Geisha Mameha names her ward Sayuri and begins her training and her great destiny to top even her own value to the rich men who will offer their patronage. Her beauty grows into incandescence, the gracefulness of her dance mesmerizing, the quickness of her wit disarming.
There's a certain predictable quality in the storyline, but not in the emotionally charged nuances that keep you gripped in the exotic richness of its telling. Chiyo's progression through the stages of becoming the most highly sought Geisha, most highly paid for her virginity, renaming and tragically withheld realization of her longing is a bedazzlement of the senses. The Geisha culture and customs, not nearly as obvious or superficial as many assume, provide the core and foundation of the drama. The instructiveness of it in Golden's superb narrative is tranferred with faithful adherence and will explain much about Geisha values and realities, perhaps, even, to some Japanese. It did to at least one: my companion at the screening.
There are no subtitles, the Japanese and Chinese players speak English both with and without accents. In some cases, the diction is slow and methodical, revealing a somewhat less comfort level with the English language, but I never saw it as a compromise in the impression of the culture of this period.
The Geisha narrator in Arthur Golden's novel goes into great length about the quality and meaning of the kimonos a geisha wears and that there's nothing accidental or assumed about the rich taste and craftsmanship that go into their design and rare fabric. In a leading geisha house, the cost of these garments are a big slice of the budget pie. They are a mark of the status of their clientele and of the geisha. The attention to this detail in the movie beatifully depicts the tradition with exquisite, if unstated, examples.
Ziyi, as much a dancer as an actress ("The House of Flying Daggers"), doesn't depend merely on stunning beauty. She more than capably conveys the passions of a girl trapped in an alien world, meeting its challenges, and conquering it with as much internal accomplishment as external. Watanabe is handsomely stalwart, providing a presence of genuine quality and ethical sacrifice. If you want the image of incorruptible righteousness, Watanabe is your man. Yeoh creates a lady of so fine a disposition and understanding, it could be called a bravura performance. And Li pulls off villainy to mask vulnerability with great style and subtlety.
All considered, I'll go on record to predict this as a major contender for Best Picture come Oscar time.
The Soundtrack Album