Rob Marshall, “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2002)
Essentially a variation on the Cinderella story through Western stereotypes about geisha and their role and function in Japanese society, “Memoirs …” is an overblown rags-to-riches rise of a young girl from an impoverished farming family living in Japan in the early 20th century. The child Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) is packed off to a geisha house to work as a servant. There she meets the haughty geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li) who kicks the child around. In spite of the bullying and numerous beatings from Hatsumomo and the mistress of the geisha house, Chiyo dreams of becoming a geisha herself. A chance meeting with a stranger known only as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) sets Chiyo on the path to becoming a maiko (apprentice geisha) under the tutelage of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) who teaches her dancing, music and the art of conversation among other skills she needs to be a geisha. Through the years Chiyo grows into a beautiful young woman and is renamed Sayuri. Sayuri becomes a highly accomplished geisha and her beauty becomes legend. Of course this riles Hatsumomo who with another traine maiko called Pumpkin plots against Sayuri.
In its first half the film is slow and laboured in building up Chiyo’s background as a downtrodden servant who holds fast to her dream of becoming a geisha. The movie only starts picking up speed once the Chairman meets Chiyo on a pedestrian bridge and then Mameha appears at the geisha house to offer to train the girl. Events move quickly and the film becomes more interesting and sumptuous. Hatsumomo becomes even more of a threat to Sayuri as she determines to ruin the younger woman’s reputation permanently. Yet as Sayuri triumphs in her chosen career, she discovers numerous career shortcomings: other geisha are jealous of Sayuri’s rocketing to fame and many men vie to become Sayuri’s danna (patron) but her heart yearns for the one man who could take her away from having to entertain male clients for a living and give her true love.
Tailored to Western audiences and their knowledge – or lack thereof – of Japanese culture, the film does not strip away very many common stereotypes about the geisha profession. Viewers knowing little about how young girls train to become maiko and then geisha will get no help from whatever information the film proffers. Whatever independence is demonstrated by geisha – the woman running the geisha house where Chiyo meets Hatsumomo is very indomitable – is often undermined by some of the dialogue and the voice-over narration portraying geisha as women whose futures depend entirely on ensnaring a wealthy danna. The reality is that while many geisha do need a rich patron, the world of geisha houses is completely dominated by women: they run the geisha houses, they recruit and train new geisha and they are responsible for their own incomes and the incomes of the geisha houses they run. In short, geisha are more often than not independent and capable businesswomen. Instead the movie focuses on the soap opera situations Sayuri finds herself in but her character and the characters of the rest of the cast are bland and colourless; only Gong Li’s bitchy and cruel Hatsumomo offers something meaty if somewhat overdone. Yeoh is wasted as Sayuri’s okiya Mameha and likewise Watanabe as the Chairman drifts in and out ineffectually for much of the film. The acting overall is capable but not great.
As expected of a film about geisha, based on a best-selling novel, and with a big budget, the cinematography is excellent, the costume design is lavish and the interiors of Japanese geisha houses and tea houses are beautifully designed and constructed.
Ultimately the film is a shallow exploration of a character’s survival through at least three tumultuous decades in Japanese history without providing much detail about how becoming a geisha has made Sayuri the wise elderly narrator looking back over her life. The movie’s plot shoehorns what might have been a story about endurance and patience during a period of dramatic change, crisis, war and foreign occupation into a live-action Disneyland romance. In doing so, it demeans the intelligence of Western viewers by delivering a conservative message that also reinforces stereotypes about Japanese women and society.