Memoirs of a Geisha

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, January 16, 2006


American commerce couldn't function without the salesman personality: outgoing, brash, and self-assured. Yet, Japanese corporate life carries on nicely despite a shortage of Donald Trumps.

The Japanese were among the first to develop enterprises far larger than the family firm. To induce the comfort level they needed to strike deals with people who weren't relatives, the relatively shy, sensitive, and easily shamed Japanese evolved an elaborate mode of business entertaining lubricated by food, sake, and expert hostesses. At banquets, geisha provided both classy entertainment in the traditional arts and light flirtation, making old moguls feel young and optimistic again.

Although only a rich man could afford a geisha as his mistress, in a society where marriages were mostly arranged, and women with children devoted much more attention to their offspring than to their husbands, drinking with geisha offered salarymen a taste of what few wives or common prostitutes were trained to dispense: style, wit, and allure.

Now much reduced in numbers, the old "flower and willow world" of the geisha makes a fascinating but less than wholly appealing subject for American audiences in "Chicago" director Rob Marshall's worthy and sumptuous if not always successful adaptation of American author Arthur Golden's admirable middlebrow bestseller, "Memoirs of a Geisha." Except for one dance scene that looks like a 1984 Siouxsie and the Banshees MTV video, Marshall lets viewers indulge in a Big Hollywood Movie version of classic Japanese aesthetics.

An impoverished little girl is sold into indentured servitude in the "floating world" of Kyoto's Gion nightlife district in the late 1920s. Born with virtually the only "translucent gray" eyes in Japan (transformed into blue eyes for the movie poster), the orphan begins to attract attention, both malignant and benevolent (but still creepy).

The great Gong Li ("Farewell, My Concubine") plays a beautiful and fierce aging geisha, a sort of Wicked Witch of the East, who sees our young heroine as a potential rival to destroy.

Our Cinderella is laboring as a servant when a prince of a fellow known as The Chairman tries to cheer the pretty child up by purchasing her the Japanese equivalent of a Snow Cone. The smitten youngster resolves to grow up to be a geisha and become the mistress of this middle-aged married man.

A kindly geisha played by the lovely Michelle Yeoh ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") mentors her in decorum and music (years of training gets boiled down to the customary movie montage), then auctions off the 15-year-old's virginity for a record sum.

As the heroine, Zhang Ziyi is a bit of a disappointment, lacking the seductive sparkle in her eyes with which she dazzled as the sultry taxi dancer in Wong Kar Wai's hypnotic "2046."

This Sony Pictures release employs Chinese actresses as the three Japanese geisha. The Chinese film industry, led by directors such as Wong and Zhang Yimou ("Hero"), has entered a golden age of old-fashioned glamour, cultivating some of the most charismatic movie stars on Earth. In contrast, much of Japan's creativity now flows into videogames for children and nerds.

A friend in Japan writes, "This main role was the chance of the century for a good Japanese actress to become world famous. But the Japanese aren't as aggressive as the Chinese and won't kill for a part." Indeed, on the world stage, the term "Japanese celebrity" is something of an oxymoron, due both to their diffidence and to their difficulty in learning English, the global alpha language. For instance, the handsome, likeable Japanese actor Ken Watanabe ("The Last Samurai") is almost unintelligible as The Chairman.

This is not to say the three Chinese stars are terribly comprehensible in English either. An on-set script doctor had to rewrite lines that the actors found unpronounceable. So, the dialogue ended up less lyrical, and you'll still be straining to comprehend it.

There wasn't any ideal solution. Some critics are outraged that the filmmakers went for the "mall audience" by not shooting in Japanese, but the source novel is in English. Marshall might have cast English-speaking Asian-American actresses, but there aren't many well-known ones besides Lucy Liu (who could have played Gong's dragon princess role, although not as well).

If you wait for the DVD, you can watch "Memoirs" with the captions turned on, but then you would miss the opportunity to bask in the exceptional beauty of the sets and costumes as you watch it on a big theatre screen.

Rated PG-13 for mature subject matter and some sexual content.


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