Dec 302005

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Nitta Sayuri reveals how she transcended her fishing-village roots and became one of Japan’s most celebrated geisha.

Directed by
Rob Marshall

Drama, Romance

Suzuka Ohgo, Togo Igawa, Mako, Samantha Futerman, Elizabeth Sung, Thomas Ikeda, Li Gong, Tsai Chin, Kaori Momoi, Zoe Weizenbaum, David Okihiro, Miyako Tachibana, Kotoko Kawamura, Karl Yune, Eugenia Yuan

Lay wanted to see this one, so we went last evening. Truth be told, this movie was not as bad as its trailer led me to expect. It had a story to tell (although it crumbles in the end), images to show, and material to present. There were ample displays of exquisite beauty?the trailing tails of silk kimonos, the subtle allure of hand gestures, and the captivating kabuki theater dance scene…

The scope of craftsmanship on display in the film is largely impressive; it’s clear that Marshall knows how to photograph a pretty picture and set a specific mood. Production designer John Myher has worked miracles to encapsulate the insular pre-war atmosphere of Japan, using the narrow walkways and claustrophobic native paper-and-wood construction to set the right tempo in Sayuri’s escapeless surroundings.

Storywise, “Geisha” is an epic tale, taking place over many years and incorporating several important moments in history. The script, by Robin Swicord and Doug Wright, pays careful attention to the nuances of the era, when the geishas were cherished for their culture and companionship, along with being unequaled objects of lust.

Sold into slavery by her parents as a child, Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang, in a stunning performance) is resigned to a life of hardship and abuse. Raised amongst geishas, including the bitter Hatsumomo (a delectably vile Gong Li), Sayuri dreams of their educated and venerated lifestyle. When an unexpected benefactor (a scene-stealing Michelle Yeoh) comes looking for Sayuri, the frightened girl begins her long and arduous training to become a geisha. During this time, Sayuri rises to power, commanding the attention of every man she meets, and enraging Hatsumomo further. Nevertheless, all the adoration in the land can’t help satisfy Sayuri’s love for the one person, The Chairman (Ken Watanabe), who was kind to her while she was a frightened little girl.

The war sequences hold interest, mostly because they capture the bittersweet decline of the geisha, quickly replaced by crude prostitutes who easily con foreign serviceman out of their money with a little attention. The screenplay starts to make a play for a heavier emotional investment from the audience, through tragedy and Sayuri’s relocation despair, but the intended effect is never fully appreciated.

So, can a group of American men and Chinese actresses render the world of a geisha? The answer, I guess it really depends on what you are looking for. If you would like a little bit of delight from an aesthetically pleasing picture with a vague standard for authenticity and realism, this movie delivers it. I would not say Rob Marshall failed completely. Memoirs of a Geisha is not the first, nor the last, movie that subjects another culture to the crude lens of American exoticism. It definitely is not the worst one.

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