Making the Grades
"Remember... geisha are not courtesans. And we are not wives. We sell our skills, not our bodies. We create another secret world, a place only of beauty. The very word "geisha" means artist and to be a geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art," explains one of the characters in this movie.
Really? Perhaps it's just my ignorance of Japanese culture, but I always thought a geisha was a prostitute. Remembering this new definition, I tried to approach the film with an open mind.
It begins in a small impoverished fishing village, where nine-year-old Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) and her older sister Satsu (Samantha Futerman) eavesdrop as their father negotiates the terms for their sale. Then he helps load his frightened daughters into the back of a cart -- although he does cry as he watches them being hauled away. Taken to a hanamachi (geisha district) in a distant city, the girls are sold to separate okiyas (geisha households). Of the two, Chiyo fares better, thanks to her unusual and potentially profitable blue eyes.
Losing all ties to her real family, the child awkwardly adapts to the new surroundings, which are ruled over by Mother (Kaori Momoi), the business brains behind the operation. The okiya is supported by the earnings of Hatsumomo (Gong Li), a full geisha who plies her profession each evening as a social companion, singer, dancer, musician, and sake pourer at local teahouses. Also in residence is the young apprentice Pumpkin (Zoe Weizenbaum plays her as a child, Youki Kudoho as an adult). As this is a world where one prospers by their good looks, wit and charm, the beautiful newcomer is met with a sense of competition instead of friendship.
Verbally browbeaten and physically lashed when she disappoints, Chiyo has no desire to excel in her forced-upon occupation until she meets The Chairman (Ken Watanabe). Several years her senior, the wealthy gentleman shows her an unexpected kindness. Realizing that becoming a geisha is the only way she will ever be able to enter his world, she determines to throw herself into her studies. Unfortunately, her newfound zeal only increases the rivalry she faces at home.
A few discouraging years pass before fate finally intervenes in the form of a new mentor --Mameha (Michelle Yeoh). Accomplishing with her sweet demeanor what Mother's sour approach could not, Chiyo is renamed Sayuri (now played by Ziyi Zhang) and transformed into the most desirable geisha in the entire hanamachi. However, the young woman's success comes at a price. In order to pay off the debts she has incurred living under Mother's roof, she must sell the only thing of any marketable value she possess -- her virginity. And to secure future financial support, she must find a Danna (a male patron willing to underwrite her expenses). The only man vying for the honor is the scar-faced Nobu (Koji Yakusho)--not The Chairman.
Well, so much for the flowery definition given for geisha. The only differences I can see between them and prostitutes are some strict protocols and expectations about the income bracket of their prospective clients. The movie also suffers from the same problem. Billed as a work of art exploring a mysterious and exotic world, the big-budget film is beautifully photographed at spectacular locations, with elaborate sets and lavish costumes. It is as exquisite to look at as a Japanese porcelain doll. Yet underneath all its finery, it is just another tale about the sex trade. For all the expense of making this two and a half hour-long epic, the plodding plot fails to solicit true sympathy for its lead characters, because it is too busy glamorizing the societal structure that upheld and embraced this means of livelihood regardless of the cost to the individual.
(Western culture is certainly not portrayed with better ethics either. As the storyline continues until post World War II, the arrival of the American GI's in Japan exposes their exploitive attitudes to the local citizens. They are shown as crassly taking personal liberties rather than bringing freedom to the broken nation.)
The moviemakers do deserve credit for their very careful crafting of this tale of kept women, which manages to dance all around their subject without really ever saying the word sex. This is achieved by providing visual cues that imply, using polite euphemisms, and fading to black or cutting from a scene before the action gets too involved. But make no mistake; the message is still loud and clear. After all, as even the script reminds us, "These are not the memoirs of an empress, nor of a queen. These are memoir of another kind." These are the Memoirs of a Geisha.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Memoirs of a Geisha.
Sex is the central theme in this story of a young girl who is sold to a geisha household, and trained in the art of becoming one of these mysterious white-faced women. Bare backs and shoulders are shown in bathing situations (in one case there are men and women bathing together) and in other scenes where sex is implied (one with a woman protesting tearfully). Other content has a woman crudely examined for physical evidence after she’s accused of being with a man, a self-inflicted wound provides an excuse for showing off a female’s thigh, and an authority figure beats a disobedient child. Other verbal and physical threats are exchanged and characters are in peril due to a house fire and invasions during World War II. Throughout the movie many characters smoke and drink, and some of them are portrayed as drunken. Only one moderate profanity is used.