Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.
In 1920s Japan, 9-year-old Chiyo and her sister, Satsu, are sold to pay off their impoverished families debts. Chiyo is purchased by a Geisha house, while Satsu is sent off to a brothel. At the Geisha house, Chiyo encounters the ruthless Hatsumomo, who, fearing that the young girl will grow up to replace her, makes her life a living hell. All this cruelty nearly breaks Chiyo, until, one day, she is shown a small act of kindness by The Chairman, played by Ken Watanabe. This motivates Chiyo to become a Geisha, and she spends the next several years training in the art of music, dance, and conversation. Finally, after her instruction is complete, Chiyo becomes Sayuri, a Geisha of incredible beauty and influence. She even finds The Chairman again, who claims not to recognize her after all these years. Things are looking up, until World War 2 breaks out, sending Chiyo’s life, once more, into turmoil.
Memoirs Of A Geisha is a beautifully-shot, superbly-scored, finely acted melodrama. And I kind of hate it. Not because I think it’s poorly-made, mind you. The costumes, sets, cinematography and lead actresses are all gorgeous to look at. But the dialogue is cheesy, the story is highly reminiscent of a soap-opera, and it relies heavily on Western misconceptions of East-Asian culture. And I’m not just saying that. The film was shot in California, directed by a White Man, Rob Marshall, and the book on which it is based was also written by a White Man, Arthur Golden. And before you hit me with a “but they could have done a lot of research” defense, it’s worth noting that many Japanese people, such as the writer, Kimiko Akita, have criticized Memoirs for perpetuating racist stereotypes of East-Asian women as demure, mysterious, and exotic, and one of the actual Geisha Golden interviewed for his book, Mineko Iwasaki, sued him for defamation and libel. The film was also criticized when it first came out for casting Chinese actresses, like Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh, in prominent roles meant for Japanese women. For my part, I have mixed feelings on the issue. On the one hand, a film this deeply rooted in Japanese culture should probably have had Japanese leads. On the other hand, the film is clearly the product of a White man’s imagination, and I’m frankly glad that they bothered casting Asian actresses at all, as opposed to Natalie Portman or Angelina Jolie in Yellow Face. Which, trust me, could very well have happened.
But, as I said before, the film is well-made. It was a box office smash when it first came out, and it won three academy awards, including Best Cinematography and Costume Design. And even though the story itself is silly, the actors all do fine jobs. Zhang Ziyi was actually nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance as Chiyo, and I can understand why. She’s sweet, vulnerable, determined and convincing in the role. Granted, there are moments where the international cast’s plethora of accents–some sound Japanese, some sound Chinese, some sound British–get kind of distracting. But, for the most part, everyone does a great job, and between that and the lavish production values, Memoirs is a fine enough watch. Just don’t expect depth, or cultural accuracy, if you choose to go see it.