Based on the best-selling novel by Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha is set in pre-World War II Japan and relates the tale of how a poor young girl from a fishing village became the most renowned geisha in all Kyoto. The film takes a bittersweet, cloyingly nostalgic look at traditional Japanese society just before rapid modernization and Americanization transformed it into the international cultural and economic power of today. Golden was originally inspired by a real-life chance encounter with a man who had been born the illegitimate son of a prosperous businessman and a geisha, and modeled his protagonist on an actual geisha, the renowned Mineko Iwasaki.
As the film opens, nine nine-year-old Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) and her sister toil away in poverty in their village, but unexpectedlyescape fishing-village life when their parents sell them into domestic slavery. Life at the fishy end of pre-modern Japan was dreary, wet, and very, very brown—the first half hour of the film plods and trudges through endless mud and rain, drafty wood huts and fishy-smelly fingers. The film spends way too much time drawing a picture of how modest young Chiyo’s means were, so much so that her being sold into slavery comes as a welcome escape, promising that something more interesting to look at really will come before the film is over.
Chiyo may be a country bumpkin who smells like fish, but she is clever, has a sharp tongue, and an incredible grace for recovering from reputation and career-destroying faux pas. When a strange man buys her a sweet ice during a cherry blossom festival, she falls in love with this kindly Chairman (Ken Watanabe). In childish gratitude, she sets as her life’s goal the quest to find this man again and win his heart for herself one day. With this as her secret goal in life, Chiyo finds herself mysteriously adopted, in the manner of Dickens’ Pip, but with great expectations of an altogether sort.
In Kyoto, Chiyo soon finds herself (much like Pygmalion) under the tutelage of head geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), and well on the road to being transformed into Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang). As Sayuri, she realizes she is destined to be celebrated one day as the geisha toast of Kyoto society. Memoirs of a Geisha takes many novelistic turns of an English variety, as Sayuri learns the devious and wily ways (sexual and sexual-political) of any good Austen protagonist. She encounters endless skirmishes with the story’s evil stepmother and step-sisters, the greedy (domestic slave) owner Granny (Kotoko Kawamura), competitor Hatsumomo (Li Gong), former best friend Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh), not to mention the unwanted attentions of various businessmen.
Director Rob Marshall offers up cinematic mixed bag–a Hollywood potboiler which seems to scream Broadway musical rewrite, a stunning homage to the classical geisha (woman as the perfect and complete aesthetic object), and a rich and evocative recreation of a now-extinct culture, through a catalog of sumptuous details–collector-quality kimonos, stage sets recreating traditional old-city Kyoto nooks and crannies, and more than one show-geisha performance piece. By contrast, the petty-but-deadly betrayal and foils, and romantic interludes have a hard time not coming off as soap-operatic.
What seems to be missing from Memoirs of a Geisha is an authentic Japanese eye and ear. The portrayal of the sharply divided worlds of men and women often feels more than a little Victorian. Much of the film stresses the meaning and dire consequences (to the woman) for failing to understand the role of the geisha. She is never an autonomous woman, but rather a social role and an ornament for a man, an educated and gracious hostess, never a prostitute. Indeed procuring a buyer for her mizuage (virginity) (which serves as the film’s crisis and climax) is more akin to landing a patron or becoming a trophy wife. The problem underlying this film, of viewing Japan through Hollywood eyes, is tellingly manifested in the casting so many Chinese and Malaysian actors in Japanese roles (most glaringly Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang in the lead role).