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Hollywoodified: A Film Review of “Memoirs of a Geisha”

It’s been 13 years since Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha made its way onto the big screen. Released on December 9, 2005, Memoirs has been a source of contention for many scholars and moviegoers alike. Set in pre-WWII 1920s Japan, a 9-year old girl named Chiyo and her older sister, Satsu, are sold into the human trafficking market by their impoverished and sickly parents. While Satsu is sold to a brothel, Chiyo is sold to Ms. Nitta (Kaori Momoi), aka Mother, who owns an okiya, or a boarding house for Geisha. Geishas are Japanese entertainers, trained in the art of traditional dance, music, conversation, and tea serving. These skilled women are funded by patrons, men who pay for their company and entertainment.

At the okiya, Chiyo is bullied by the cruel and jealous head Geisha, Hatsumomo (Gong Li), and is treated like a slave by Mother. She eventually attempts to run away with her sister, but this leads to an arm injury when she falls off a roof while trying to sneak away. Because of this, Mother tells her she could never be a Geisha because her debt is now too large to make back.

For six years, Chiyo lives a life of servitude to Mother, the okiya, Hatsumomo and Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh), her childhood friend who is now a Geisha-in-training, or maiko. One day, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) Hatsumomo’s rival, offers Mother a deal that she can’t refuse. A deal that would make Chiyo a celebrated Geisha and that would pay of her debt twice over, but only if Chiyo has it in her.

The colors in this movie are nothing short of amazing. The cinematographer, Dion Beebe, who won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, uses saturated colors for the wardrobe and set pieces.There’s a scene with young Chiyo running through a hall of large orange pillars, another scene with an older Chiyo, now named Sayori (Zhang Ziyi), dancing at her reception in red lipstick and a white kimono that contrasts beautifully with the black background and bright white snowflakes falling from the ceiling. The vibrant reds, the clean whites, the bright yellows and oranges pop out against the drab browns and tans of the buildings and walls. The colors stand out the same way a Geisha would as she enters a room of men with business suits.

Geishas are well-trained hostesses who charm and flirt, if need be, with their patrons in order to make more money. Though the film makes it clear that being a Geisha is not the same as being a prostitute, adult themes in the movie, such as violence, sex, tobacco use, alcohol use, attempted rape and prostitution do lend the movie a degree of insight into the not-so-glamorous aspects of Geisha culture, as does the tradition of mizuage, which is represented in the film. Mizuage is a ceremony that promotes a maiko’s transition from apprentice status to a full Geisha. Japanese prostitutes and lower ranking okiyas also used this term when referring to their deflowering ritual, in which a maiko’s virginity is sold to a male patron. Memoirs chooses to portray the mizuage ritual as a deflowering practice and it can be uncomfortable to watch a 15-year old girl sell herself to a much, much older man. And then again, can we judge these women for carving a life and wealth for themselves in a world that so often stifles women’s power?

The controversy attached to the film is not purely cinematographic; it has also been critiqued for the fact that all three leads were played by women of Chinese descent. For a movie dealing with a subject that’s strictly Japanese, it was truly offensive to many in the Asian community that these important roles were not given to Japanese actresses. In fact, the film was banned in China, as Chinese officials did not approve of Chinese actresses portraying “Japanese courtesans”.

Memoirs’ miscasting seems to be a characteristic example of Hollywood’s insensitivity, in which executives weigh star power over authenticity, masking what very well may be blatant and inherent racism. Take Scarlett Johansson, a woman of European descent, as Major Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese cyborg, in Ghost in the Shell, or Gerald Butler, a man of Scottish descent, as the Egyptian god Set in Gods of Egypt. These are only recent examples however, and there are many more to add to the list. Race-bending, and in most cases, whitewashing, is a problem in Hollywood that needs to be continually addressed, and in the case of Memoirs, it also detracts from the efficacy and authenticity of the film.

It’s also important to note that this film is based off a fictional book by Arthur Golden, published in 1997 of the same name. Golden is American and has been criticized for portraying Japanese culture incorrectly, perpetuating stereotypes, and “romanticizing” and “exoticizing” the Geisha lifestyle. In fact, Golden was sued by Mineko Iwasaki, a retired Geisha, whom he interviewed for information for his book. Iwasaki later published her own autobiography entitled Geisha, a Life, which aimed to paint a more honest portrait of the Geisha lifestyle.

These criticisms, however, should not smother the quality performance by Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeoh, and Gong Li. It was refreshing to see Ziyi in a softer role when so often the more well known movies I’ve seen her in, like Rush Hour 2, and The Grandmaster, she is cold, and dangerous. Ziyi truly became Sayori as we watched her grow from a naive and foolish young girl to a mature woman. Yeoh and Li also played their parts flawlessly. Yeoh’s alluring performance embodied grace and inspiring strength, as Mameha was a woman of discipline and independence. Li was easily the best part of the film and her interpretation of the fiery Hatsumoto made it hard to look away whenever she was on the screen. Hatsumoto is complicated and multilayered and vengeful while Yeoh is her calm and collected foil.

Overall, I was completely absorbed in the story of Chiyo/Sayori and her rags to (kind of) riches story. It is a must-watch, and a definite joy to see three powerhouse women dominating the screen in believable performances and a narrative that leaves you questioning the existence of women’s autonomy throughout history. If you can acknowledge but look past the “Hollywoodification” of the film, then you are sure to love this beautifully-told story.

You can find the book on Amazon Prime, and the film through Amazon Prime and Media Services at Paley Library.