Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Directed by: Rob Marshall   Rated: PG-13   Runtime: 2 hrs. 25 mins

Studio: Sony Pictures      Screenwriter: Robin Swicord

Based on: Novel of same name by Arthur Golden

Cast: Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li, Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh, Suzuko Ohgo, Kaori Momoi, Youki Kuhoh, Kôji Yakusho

Memoirs of a Geisha is an American Hollywood film about the mysterious lives of a class of people within Japanese culture. It’s directed by a white man. The art and costume departments were also led by white people. The book upon which this film is based was written by a white man. The main cast is Chinese. So, yes. Let’s get the points of cultural impropriety out of the way first, shall we? 

This movie would most likely not be made today without Japanese cast members as the leads. It would undoubtedly involve someone behind the scenes as a consultant. This would remove the tarnish this film suffers from culturally, at a minimum. As it is, the cast looks and sounds Chinese. One of the original points in casting was that there were not enough Japanese actors who could speak English well enough to be considered for specific roles. As a white American, I’m not so stupid; I can’t tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese people. Apparently, I am an exception, as the thinking was many Westerners are too dumb and close-minded to notice. Is that true? Yes, but how many possess the intellect and patience to sit through a film like this anyway? So, if you can get over the casting issues, keep reading.

Memoirs of a Geisha is a dramatic period piece (1920-the 1940s) that follows the path of a young girl, Chiyo (Ohgo), who is sold to a Geisha house. Such a place is where certain girls/women train to dance, play music, pour tea, and master the art of conversation. To be a companion to men in public settings. Not physically or sexually at all. They are a status symbol, moving displays of art and grace. It is said to be a great honor. And yet, what is unspoken is that this lifestyle is a form of modernized indentured servitude. Which makes me wonder if that’s historically accurate. 

The film begins with Chiyo being sold and taken from her home, a small fishing village, to a place with more rooftops than she’s ever seen before in her short life. Where she’s expected to scrub, clean, sew and do anything else that’s demanded of her. To serve. Until one day when she meets a man who shows her an ounce of compassion and kindness. No one else has in a long time. From this, the film is a springboard for Chiyo’s resolve to become a Geisha so she can see the man again. 

Ken Watanabe, Suzuko Ohgo in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ Credit: Sony Pictures via Cinemaholic.com

That moment is one I have an issue with. Chiyo is still a child, and her life’s ambition to become a Geisha is entangled with her desire for this man, known as “Chairman” (Watanabe), to become her patron. Someone who will look after her for the rest of her life. The narrative frames this as a love story, but it’s not. It’s a girl’s infatuation with someone just because they were kind to her. It carries on like this for years as her motivation for everything she does afterward. It’s a dangerous, unhealthy obsession. She never even learns his actual name. This obsession is encouraged by Mameha (Yeoh), who reminds Chiyo that Geisha are not entitled to love or have a life of their own. It makes a person wonder what it is all for. 

As Chiyo gets ready to make her Geisha debut, she is given a Geisha name, Sayuri (Zhang). 

The beginning of the film’s vantage point of Chiyo/Sayuri as a child (ideally) lets the audience appreciate all that she’s endured and put up with as a young woman about to become a Geisha. How she deals with an established, jealous rival from her own house, Hatsumomo (Li). An angry, vicious viper who clearly can’t handle the competition. Her character is a constant point of conflict for Chiyo/Sayuri. She causes much treachery and deceit throughout the film. This back and forth is just one of the many areas that provided layers of detail and cultural nuances. Often adding to the pace of the film so it shifts from beat to beat with ease. 

Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ Credit: Sony Pictures

If the cultural nuances of Geisha or Japanese culture haven’t been bastardized for the period as a whole. I do wonder how much is wrong and what is accurate. 

Many of the characters are given some back story to grant their place in the plot with more relevance than they deserve, but they all serve a purpose. No one seems like a throwaway character. That said, the cast all deliver a performance that is as good as could be expected. It’s not difficult to understand anyone in their attempts to speak English clearly. Gong Li and Suzuka Ohgo are probably the most energetic actresses, with the most ability to branch out emotionally. As such, their depictions of Hatsumomo and young Chiyo are the most engaging to watch. 

Memoirs of a Geisha has this pull. From the start of the film, there is a tone that is set. One of seriousness and mystery. Where the further in you go, the more layers are pulled back to reveal this atmospheric bubble where dance, cherry trees, kimonos, and tea are the only reality that matter. Where women are locked in battles of words and wit to acquire a patron. 

Gong Li ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ Credit: Sony Pictures via IMDb.com

The ending to this film is like the book. So, the fault or questions that creep in at the conclusion are not solely those of the filmmakers. The movie’s last act takes place at the end of world war two. History explains how that went for Japan. My question is, how would Arthur Golden resolve his Sayuri and Chairman storyline without the crutch of adding in the war as a copout? He created this story that eludes and divulges the secrets of the lives of Geisha. With all the rules and taboos therein. I think this story could have been stronger if the main plot was resolved without U.S. soldiers coming to Japan. If the story had been set sooner in time. How would that have affected the trajectory of the character’s endings if he had kept Sayuri on her delusional path? I have no idea. It’s a question you can think about if you see the film for yourself. 

Is Memoirs of a Geisha terrible? That depends on how you feel about the casting, first and foremost. Overall is the acting unwatchable? Not at all. The set designs and costumes are all remarkable looking. Elegant. Detailed. The choreography… ask someone with knowledge.  

For an American-made film with an all-Asian cast, I can see its desire to expand beyond what gets typically made here. To provide a film that would expand Westerners’ mindsets on the notion of ‘foreign films.’ Because if this film was made with a Japanese cast, spoken in Japanese, with English subtitles, virtually no one in America would have gone to see it. That’s assuming it made it to smaller local theaters at all. American’s are idiotic, lazy, snobs when it comes to the idea of reading and watching at the same time during a film. Well, the entire film. 

Ziyi Zhang in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ Credit: Sony Pictures via Slant Magazine

The non-American Asian community will undoubtedly find faults with this film enough to not want to see it. That’s fair. However, there are plenty of factors about Memoirs of a Geisha that land it on the watchable list. Again if you don’t mind the casting flubs and a story around women and their issues, it’s a good watch. Just make sure you’re not distracted while viewing. 

—a pen lady