February 7, 2006 -- “Memoirs of a Geisha” is a beautiful-looking film with an ugly little fantasy at its heart. An adult man buys a flavored ice treat for a pretty little girl. The girl falls in love with the man and devotes her life to pursuing a romance with him. It sounds like a pedophile's fantasy. This is the essence of the story of a famous geisha, based on the Arthur Golden novel. The movie features beautiful costumes, sets and locations. It also tries desperately to beautify the basic plot, but there is only so much you can do with such a disturbing fantasy.
The movie opens on another disturbing scene, two poor young rural girls being sold to Tokyo geisha houses by their impoverished parents. The two girls soon lose track of each other and the only family the young girl has left is the people in the geisha house, where she is a virtual slave. Then the young girl meets the nice man, called the Chairman (Ken Watanabe of “The Last Samurai”), who buys her the ice treat. She now has a goal in her life, the Chairman. We advance a few years to find the now grown geisha-in-training, whose name, Chiyo, has been changed to Sayuri (played by Ziyi Zhang of “House of Flying Daggers”) getting ready to enter the prime time world of Tokyo geisha life.
The movie takes pains to argue that a geisha is not a prostitute, but rather an artistic entertainer, who rarely sells sexual favors for money. Much is made of the rivalry between Sayuri and another geisha, Hatsumomo (played by famed Chinese actress Li Gong of “2046”). The verbal sparring matches between the two are pretty good. Both women belong to the same geisha house and both want to inherit the house from its owner, a tough and crafty old woman called Mother (Kaori Momoi of “Kagemusha”). The world of geisha life in Tokyo is turned upside down by World War II, when U.S. bombers burn Tokyo to the ground. During the U.S. occupation of Japan after the war, the world of the geishas in Japan is greatly changed and the balance of power has shifted in Japanese society.
This epic story has overtones of “Gone With the Wind” as the geishas' fortunes fall after the war and they struggle to maintain their dignity during the American occupation. The basic romance between the geisha and her sponsor is thin at best. Overtones of European domination exist earlier in the film as well. The geisha has blue eyes, a caucasian trait, which sets her apart from other Japanese girls. Overtones of prostitution also appear in the film as the geisha sells her virginity to the highest bidder, even though prostitution is supposed to be beneath the dignity of a geisha (and this particular sale of virginity was reportedly denied by the geisha on whom the story is loosely based). Regardless of the pomp, pageantry and elegant entertainment of the geisha houses, it is, after all, the unstated promise of sexual availability that provides the money to support this elaborate illusion of sexless entertainment.
Much has been made of the fact that several of the lead actresses in this movie are not Japanese. Both Li Gong and Ziyi Zhang are Chinese, while Michele Yeoh of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is Malaysian. Yeoh plays Mameha, Sayuri's mentor. All three women are great actresses, and they give great performances, but I think you can make the argument that the subject of this movie is so uniquely Japanese that only Japanese actors can correctly interpret the material. Then again, the author of the book isn't Japanese, so maybe the whole argument is baseless. Anyway, it is a great-looking movie with lush cinematography by Dion Beebe and a rich musical score by the great John Williams. The acting is also top-notch, but the subject matter is a bit creepy. This film rates a B.
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