Memoirs of a Geisha

dir: Rob Marshall
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I guess this was a highly anticipated adaptation of a bestselling book. To my eye, for the last five years, upon riding and enjoying the many virtues of public transport, if a fellow passenger wasn’t reading a Harry Potter book, or one of Dan Brown’s magnum opuses, they usually held a white book with a vivid set of red lips on the cover.

As something of a fan of Japanese history and culture (read: a pretentious dilettante), curiousity killed and skinned my cat about the whole production. So I endeavoured to read the book before seeing the film. Because it’s nice, occasionally, to have an informed opinion on something.

The book, to my surprise, was not, actually, the memoirs of a geisha. It was a purely fictional story written by an American guy, Arthur Golden, who researched a heap about the life and times of the geisha, and who probably doesn’t look that good in a kimono. So that was my first let down.

Then, as I read, I realised the story was essentially a Japanese version of Pretty Woman, that cinematic classic of the Golden Age of Hollywood. That was my second.

The plot focuses on the life of a poor widdle Japanese girl sold into slavery who becomes one of the most famous geisha in history. Whatever that means. World War II is merely an inconvenient bother in the background of this story, as our heroine lives her entire life in the hope of one day being owned by a particularly nice old man she calls The Chairman.

Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) lives a simple life of glorious poverty in a pokey fishing village until her mother falls ill. She and her sister are sold to a guy, presumably because someone ran out of money to buy cigarettes. Chiyo, distinctive with her blue-grey eyes, is again sold to an okiya (geisha house), and her older sister is sold to a brothel.

This is pretty awful stuff, but it’s skimmed over so quickly that you barely have time to feel sorry for the poor girl. Hatsumomo (Gong Li), the okiya’s primary geisha and one of the most beautiful geisha working at the time, develops a deep and life-long hatred for Chiyo in the space of seconds. For the rest of the story, she goes out of her way to make Chiyo’s life a living, breathing, thumping hell.

Chiyo’s life does suck continuously until she bumps into a dirty old man on a bridge. The Chairman (Ken Watanabe) buys her icy treats and, pointing to the two geisha who accompany him, convinces Chiyo to focus on becoming a great geisha in the hopes of, I dunno, making him her sugardaddy, I guess.

Hatsumomo has enemies as well, and one of them, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) decides to take Chiyo under her wing and transform her into the pride of Gion, the suburb of Kyoto where the okiya are all located. Chiyo changes her name to Sayuri, and even more magically transforms into Ziyi Zhang with blue contact lenses.

Stories about slave girls wanting to be saved by big strong men and transformed into princesses are ancient. They’re also usually fodder for the kinds of romantic trash novels middle-aged women give themselves a surreptitious fiddle to in the bath after a nice bottle of red. Why the author went with this kind of awful plot is his business. He must be a squillionaire by now, so I doubt he loses sleep over any of my opinions.

The film faithfully reproduces the story, without substantial variations. Some of the details are different, of course, but the overall path is identical. And that’s where most of the film’s problems come from.

What made the book enjoyable, above the often clichéd prose and murky melodrama, was the abundance of detail about every facet of the geisha’s existence. The training, the make-up, the complex legal and financial arrangements, the minutiae of this bizarre art were all fascinating. It made the book worth reading just for this complex and exhaustive look into their history and lives.

The thinly–drawn characters, the leaden dialogue, hell, you could ignore it all as long as you could be entranced by descriptions of the tea rituals, the meticulous and intricate putting-on of a kimono, the meanings and stories behind the Spring Festival dances, and the psychology and skill behind the slightest look, the merest gesture.

Even for a two and a half hour film, all that detail is of course jettisoned. All they have time for is plot. The first hour, which covers about three quarters of the novel, moves at such a brisk pace that you know it was edited by people who didn’t trust the subject material. They thought illuminating too much of this aspect of Japanese culture would be too boring for any audience. History truly does come alive in the safe hands of Hollywood.

Further into the film, there were moments where I was asking myself, “So, is this set in Japan or what?” It’s not that the film doesn’t ring true, or seems inauthentic. Consider the source material. It’s not like they took a Japanese classic, mistranslated it and then dumbed it down for the multiplex masses. The book was already in English. Having predominately non-Japanese women playing the main roles hardly matters anyway, as long as they can act. So what if they’re speaking English, with charming and difficult accents. Big deal, you pedant. As if your elocution or articulation is any better.

No, the film’s faults are the novel’s flaws, and you can’t blame director Rob Marshall or the actresses for that.

Marshall maintains a strong visual flair, with sumptuous colours, vivid palettes and anything else he can think of to cover up the fact that he doesn’t know how best to tell the lame story, or how to raise any of the material from mediocre melodrama to believable or affecting drama.

The film and the actresses are beautiful to look at, but hard to listen to. Michelle Yeoh as our heroine’s “big” sister, does well with the part, but then again she’s a great actress, and has worked in far better films than this. She brings a necessary level of class and credibility to her role, which substantially helps the film be more endurable.

Gong Li, as the film’s villain, is more cartoonish than the bad guys in comic books. She literally gives an evil laugh before and after doing or saying evil things. But the part as written, ripped straight from the novel, is exactly the same. She’s less a character and more a harpy plot device existing to threaten harm to our heroine at every stage. Li has played this part before, and she looks perfect for the role, but her character’s actions make even less sense here than they do in the book, to the point where she just seems crazy with jealousy. She does okay, though. She has this way of smiling which looks like the most malevolent facial expression you’ve ever seen.

Alas, Ziyi Zhang as Sayuri is probably the weakest link. She tries her heart out, and I know she’s a decent enough actress because of other stuff I’ve seen her in (House of Flying Daggers, and especially Wong Kar Wai’s 2046), but she’s not really able to do much with such a wet character. It also doesn’t help that her over-enunciation of dialogue is distracting, and that she rarely if ever looks even vaguely Japanese, or at all like a geisha. Again, the film makers don’t trust the material. They feared making it too “Japanese” would turn audiences away, which is pretty pointless, really.

One of the book’s biggest flaws is the passivity of the main character, which is fine in other kinds of stories, but here, where it’s all about her not striving and not struggling to reach her dreams, it just makes her a leaf on the current, going wherever the story takes her. It makes the character less likeable, less identifiable. It’s far worse in the book, truly, but the same story weakness is here too. She only really ever gets to make one decision in her life, formulates one plan and acts on it, but even that, instead of leading to some kind of character growth, is just a plot device to get the story closer to the finish line.

Though the film had some of the details that could have made it fascinating, it still fails to bother explaining just why such a story was worth telling. In other words, it fails to even hint at the essence of what makes the geisha compelling, mysterious and iconic.

To illustrate this, an Austrian friend of mine who saw the film, and didn’t mind it that much, said to me “I got to the end of the film, and I still didn’t know whether geisha are prostitutes or not.” She, like many audience members, are still none the wiser because the story doesn’t succeed in illustrating what geisha were or what they meant to Japanese society. Sure it’s mentioned, but they poorly express a lot of things, few of them interesting.

I didn’t hate the film, probably because I was so familiar with it, and it looked nice. And I’d probably watch it again. But that doesn’t mean it’s anywhere near being a good film, though it’s a faithful adaptation. Or perhaps because it’s a faithful adaptation.

6 times you’ll wonder how a story can be set during World War II in Japan and barely mention the war except to indicate the effect it has on one’s makeup out of 10

“She paints her face to hide her face. Her eyes are deep water. It is not for geisha to want. It is not for geisha to feel. Geisha is an artist of the floating world. She dances, she sings. She entertains you, whatever you want. The rest is shadows, the rest is secret.” – how profound, Memoirs of a Geisha