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Film review ***: Coy but Sincere, ...Geisha... Plays Hard to Get

In Luscious Setting, ...Memoirs... of the Clash Between Society and Love

By Beckett W. Sterner

Memoirs of a Geisha

Directed by Rob Marshall

Written by Arthur Golden, Robin Swicord, and Doug Wright

Starring Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe, and Michelle Yeoh

Rated PG-13

Opens today in select theaters, wide release on Dec. 23, 2005

A geisha is a woman who holds a powerful sexual allure by playing hardball in a game defined by men. She is a rigorously trained entertainer who is the life of the party, yet often unable to pursue the man she loves. An icon of Japanese culture, the traditional geisha cannot truly be defined in Western terms. Through the original novel and now the film, “Memoirs of a Geisha” brings us inside the life of a geisha and her struggle with love and survival in 1930s and 40s Japan.

It is unfortunate, then, that director Rob Marshall chose to feature three Chinese actresses in the leading female roles in a film about a quintessentially Japanese life. The film follows the story of a girl named Chiyo (child played by Suzuka Ohgo, adult played by Ziyi Zhang), who is sold from her home in a fishing village to become a geisha in Kyoto, where she is tutored by another geisha named Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) and competes against Hatsumomo (Li Gong). Zhang and Gong are Chinese by birth, and Yeoh is Malaysian but ethnically Chinese. None of them look the part, and Zhang, who learned English just for this role, was ultimately unable to escape her Chinese accent. Fortunately, the leading male actors are Japanese, and this gives the film much of its authenticity.

What saves “Memoirs” from being just another mediocre book rip-off is its lush cinematography, evocative soundtrack, and faithfulness to Arthur Golden’s moving and sophisticated plot. Golden’s book, one of the most popular of the last decade, is written as if dictated by Chiyo, renamed Sayuri as an adult, long after the events. Sayuri is poetic, sharply witty, and always slightly mysterious, even as she lays her secretive life bare to the reader. This fascinating personality, placed in the struggle between a passionate love and the rules of society, is what drives the book forward.

As a film, “Memoirs” puts the social forces in even greater relief, providing a powerful commentary on what a geisha had to do to survive in her world. But the film loses the intimacy and rich voice of the book, failing to capture the true essence of a geisha’s life as presented in the novel. The loss of intimacy is partly due to Zhang’s merely adequate performance, but it also derives from a relatively pedantic conception of the older Sayuri’s narration. Where the novel’s narrator shifts between deep comments on life and girlish enthusiasm, the film’s narrator only has time for the more profound statements. Stripped so bare, such a voice-over becomes heavy-handed and works against the action.

Whereas the characters are sometimes shallow, the cinematography and music detail all the richness and ambience of the tea houses, homes, and lifestyle of the geisha. Marshall evokes traditional Japanese artwork with his slow, scrolling pans over scenes of nightlit tree branches, and much of the film’s mood comes from the sheer beauty of the world through which Sayuri moves. John Williams’ score, beautiful but unobtrusive, uses traditional Japanese instruments, mostly working to evoke emotions or energy from the background.

Behind a beautiful appearance is a darker meaning, however. The sexist cage into which women are forced by men becomes clearer, and harder to forgive, when the women live in relative luxury to serve as entertainers and objects of sexual desire for men. The dependency of a geisha cannot be more obvious than in the relationship between a geisha and her danna, a man who pays for a geisha’s living expenses so that she may become his mistress. (This does not mean she stops entertaining others at tea houses, but rather that the danna may expect to have “privileges” others do not.) Alternatively, the “rite” of womanhood for a geisha is to sell her mizuage, roughly translated as her virginity, to the highest bidder.

No matter what, the life of a geisha is one designed to prevent the type of romantic love so idolized by Western culture, which is perhaps what makes a love story in the life of a geisha such a fascinating yet foreign tale. Sayuri falls in love with a kind, generous man many years her senior (another non-American detail), and ironically can only seek his company within the strictures of entertaining as a geisha. Sayuri’s memoirs fall within no easy category of Western love, and her life always retains that open-hearted yet forever mysterious aura only achievable by a true geisha.