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Geisha

Posted on Tuesday, January 3rd, 2006

Dave!Despite working my guts out over the holiday weekend, I still made time to go see Memoirs of a Geisha at the movies. As a Japanophile, it was an absolute necessity.

But make no mistake that I wanted to see the movie because I was a fan of the book... nothing could be further from the truth. I positively despise the book Memoirs of a Geisha on which the movie is based. It is a highly fictionalized crap-fest that shits all over the secret "flower and willow world" of the geisha and is an insult to Japanese culture on several levels. I am positively horrified that the book is the big success that it is, because it propagates stereotypes and false information that go against everything geisha are supposed to be about.

No, I went to see the movie because I am a mega-huge fan of Michelle Yeoh. And also the incomparable Ziyi Zhang, who I fell in love with ever since watching the sublime Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon...

Ziyi Zhang Geisha

Ziyi Zhang Geisha

But here's the problem. Neither Michelle Yeoh or Ziyi Zhang are Japanese.

Sure their performances weren't terrible, but they should have never been cast in the first place. They were hired for the job solely because they have name recognition (no matter how vague here in the US) and because Western audiences won't know or care that they aren't Japanese. They look "Asian" and that, apparently, was enough.

Unless you appreciate Japanese culture, in which case they are about as Japanese as I am. Seriously, I could have been cast as the geisha, and it would have been just as "authentic"...

Dave Geisha

Anyway...

The word "geisha" literally means "arts person" in Japanese. Geisha are not prostitutes, as most Westerners would think, but living, breathing, moving, works of exquisitely beautiful art. Sex never enters the picture (which is not to say that geisha don't have sex, it's just that they do not have sex as geisha, which is a big difference). Geisha are highly trained from a young age to sing, dance, play instruments, compose poetry, facilitate conversation, and dozens of other art forms... like gracefully pouring tea and making ikebana (interpretive Japanese flower arrangements). They are entertainers of the highest caliber, and respected artists both in action and appearance.

Which is why the movie and book sucks ass. in order to appeal to the tawdry nature of Americans, everything is infused with sex. You've got geishas having sex (in their okiya!)... geishas selling their virginity... geishas having their clothes ripped off... all these ridiculous things which are included solely to sell books and movie tickets. Obviously I can't say that these things never happened to a geisha in real-life, but they are in no way indicative of what geisha represent, and it saddens me to think that this is the image Westerners will have of them. I mean, sure it's one-step above the prostitutes that most people have in mind now, but not much of one.

Putting the true nature of geisha and reality aside, the film still fails in my opinion. It was beautifully shot with capable actors, but that doesn't compensate for the uneven pacing that's paired with a poor (and somewhat pedophile-freaky) story. Unlike The Last Samurai, which I was able to buy into as fanciful Japanese fiction, Memoirs of a Geisha never managed to absorb me. Too many flaws kept getting in the way.


Categories: DaveToons 2006, Movies 2006Click To It: Permalink
   

Comments

  1. James says:

    Thanks for the brief lesson. I think Japanese culture is cool, and had previously associated the term “geisha” to have some sexual reference, and I’m glad you corrected that.

  2. Liz says:

    An interesting review. While I know that not everything was portrayed accurately, I personally felt that a lot of typical myths and assumptions were dispelled. At the very least, hopefully many people will come away with the knowledge that geishas are not prostitutes, which seems to be a pretty common misconception.
    I enjoyed it!

  3. Naomi says:

    Real Japanese people ROCK–even if I–I mean they–have been in the states for nearly all their life and are COMPLETELY Americanized!!! Also–nice review… I had someone (who isn’t Japanese) ask me to go see that with them–she was talking about the cultural aspects and I had to remind her that it was a work of complete fiction (i.e. BS) and was written by a white guy–a white guy from Chattanooga. Oooga.

  4. MRKisThatKid says:

    Have you seen zatoichi (sp?), probably doesn’t do the geisha cause much favour but it sure is a lot of fun lol. And that’s about as far as my geisha knowledge stretches.

    p.s. is anyone else having speed issue accessing blogography.com at the moment? I hope i’m not being punished for outstaying my welcome. I’ve no idea if I will even be able to post this, well 3 times a charm.

  5. lizriz says:

    Sigh. I loved it; I thought it was beautiful and fully engaging throughout.

    And it definitely made the point that being a Geisha was about art. And then contrasted it with what the concept of Geisha became after the war.

    Futher, the actresses were also cast for their talent. Both actresses are highly talented and as a filmmaker, I would definitely take performance over look any day. Scarlett O’Hara was an English woman! And personally, I love that performance, too.

    Further, I know that both Robin Swicord and Rob Marshall did extensive research for the film and spent time in Japan during development, and I do believe that the thing about selling her virginity is based in fact.

    Sounds to me like you went in not wanting to like it.

  6. Dave2 says:

    On the contrary… I wanted to like it very much. Though I disliked the source material strongly, I was hoping that I could escape past it as I did with “The Last Samurai” — but, in the end, I couldn’t. I would not go to any movie that I was “wanting to dislike”… I simply wouldn’t waste the time or money.

    I did not get that the “geisha was all about art” from the film. With the exception of them mentioning it overtly once or twice, I didn’t get it in context of the story at all. The inordinate amount of training and discipline required was glossed over so that it seemed as if being geisha is a hobby of some kind. And then the entire ordeal with the “selling virginity”, and the baron ripping off Chiyo’s clothing, and the sexual escapades… like I said… I don’t know that this stuff never happened to a geisha in all of history, but it is not what geisha are about. It’s what the MOVIE was about, thus people watching it are going to assume it’s typical. Again, I fully admit that this was my problem, and my appreciation of actual geisha culture soured the fanciful interpretation on screen.

    I had no issues with the performances (I love both ladies, as I said)… but, as a lover of Japanese and their culture, I notice the differences. Michele Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, and Gong Li do not sound or act Japanese. They don’t. Would you have hired Vivien Leigh if she couldn’t do a passable Southern accent? Yet again, I understand that this film was made for American audiences who can easily interchange Asian actors, but this was my personal review of the film, and it was a flaw that contributed to me not being able to escape into what I was watching.

    I don’t doubt that the director/screenwriter/whatever spent their time doing research… I just question their conclusions. The world of the geisha is based entirely around secrets. Even Japanese are confused as to the geisha mystique. In the end, I don’t doubt that there COULD BE geisha who auction their virginity off to the highest bidder… but the movie implies all geisha do so, which I find absurd. Until I read “Memoirs of a Geisha” I had never even heard of such a thing. Engaging in sexual activity for money makes you a prostitute. Auctioning off your virginity is the same as engaging in sexual activity for money which is the same as being a prostitute. Thus the film is propagating a stereotype of geisha as prostitutes, and this saddens me.

    So, while I appreciate that others will be oblivious to the problems that ruined the film for me, I simply couldn’t get past them and enjoy the film myself. Oh well, you can’t win them all. :-)

    • Vivi says:

      This film/book focuses on dark side of geisha’s life, of course we are not going to like it. But ditching a story with such view is similar to disliking films about corrupted cops that work with narko-mafia just because that’s not what good cops stand for. This movie/book’s primary aim is not to educate/raise awareness about true Japanese culture and geisha, but to give us different perspective and to entertain us. It is up to everyone to individually study Japanese culture and history if we want to.

      • Dave2 says:

        Yes. the dark side of some fictional and perverted geisha’s life, because this film in no way portrayed the world of geisha accurately. It would be like making a film about scientists and portraying them getting all their scientific data from a Ouija board. That’s not a “different perspective” because reality wasn’t presented for comparison. And that’s the problem… now people who are too lazy to “individually study” Japanese geisha culture think this is reality. How would you like it if somebody made a film about YOU, but portrayed a fictional “dark side” of your life where you were a child molesting serial killer who burned down hospitals and chopped the heads off of puppies and kittens for fun? Would you just say “Oh well… it’s up to everyone to individually study my real life to know the truth if they want to.”

  7. lizriz says:

    I hear you… although I still feel like it very much portrayed the artistic aspects of Geisha. I definitely got that part anyway. But I see what you’re saying about the sexual content.

    And I guess I honestly can’t see the Japanese/Chinese thing. Perhaps I’m just so used to people playing other races – for better or for worse – all the time. Catherine Zeta-Jones as Mexican, for example.

    So chalk it up to some ignorance, but I still loved the film.

  8. Belinda says:

    First of all, please dress your cartoon-self as a Geisha more often.

    Secondly, good review. It did hit me during the virginity-selling portion of the book…”Hey, didn’t I see this in that old movie “Pretty Baby” with little Brooke Shields?”

    I am sending everyone to this post, because I remember liking the book as a work of fiction, and never being able to learn enough about the purported “based on” story. Thanks.

  9. apryl says:

    i agree with you, Dave. i knew nothing about Geisha, but the Americanized version of who they were. when i told others about the movie, having not seen it themselves, they scoffed at what they thought was a movie solely about prostitutes.

    it was confusing. Chiyo said geishas were not to be touched…it was mentioned they were an art form…yet the movie had them selling themselves to the highest bidder.

    a contradiction. that’s humans for you.

    the cinematography is worth it all though!

  10. Sayuri (really!) says:

    i absolutely LOVED the movie.

    whether it was precise and accurate or not .. you get the point, or atleast i did, and at any rate IT’S A MOVIE!

    love love

  11. nancycle says:

    OK then, clear this up for me…Is it true that Asian women have their “shmee” on sideways?

  12. Dave2 says:

    If that means what I think it means… please tell me you are joking.

  13. stickman says:

    Just finished reading the book but haven’t seen the movie yet. An odd thing happened as I read the book. I had no idea if it was an accurate account of geisha history or not…however it triggered memories that I had long forgotten from my tween through mid teen years of my complete fascination of Japanese culture. Alas, I guess upon the end of high school you have to get a job and join the world and I had not thought of this interest since then.

    Upon finishing the book, with renewed interest in Japanese culture, I hit the internet to research and have found a number of sites which denounce the depiction of geisha in both the book and movie (I don’t know if it’s true or not but the strength of emotion felt by people saying these are flaws lead me to believe the book is incorrect) It is frustrating though because although many sites point out the flaws and speak of minor details that are correct I have been able to find a site or reference point to learn more details of all aspects of Japanese culture including of course geisha.

    If anyone (hopefully the original authour of the review) has any suggestions of where to look…without a rather expensive plane ticket from Canada to Japan ;) I’d be very thankful

    Hope I didn’t anger anyone cause my post really isn’t about the movie…thanks for your time.

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