Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) Review

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) Director: Robert Marshall

Memoirs of a Geisha Poster.jpg


The story for Memoirs of a Geisha is based on the controversial novel of the same name by Arthur Golden. It was controversial because Mr. Golden broke with protocol and named one of his sources for the story, a former geisha who was then ostracized in Japan for revealing customary secrets about the geisha lifestyle. She filed a lawsuit against Mr. Golden for using her name and they settled outside of court.

The story follows a young fisherman’s daughter, Chiyo, who is sold at a young age along with her sister. Chiyo is selected to work at a Geisha house, while her sister flees in the night from another, seedier house in the “pleasure district.” Chiyo never sees her sister again and her life is hard as she is blamed by a jealous and older geisha for various wrongdoings. She works as a servant in the house from then on out. Depressed, she goes to sit by the river when a man, the Chairman of a local company, stops by with his two geishas to cheer her up. He buys her an ice cream and encourages her to be happy. From then on, she becomes enamored with him, determined to become his geisha one day. Then a surprise happens. She is selected by another rival house to become a geisha and renamed “Sayuri” (secretly they want her to inherit her house so that the older and ill-tempered geisha does not run amok with it). She is trained in a short amount of time, and presented as the ultimate beauty in the city. She becomes known, like water, for the unusually blue color of her eyes. She impresses many men, including the Chairman whom she desires. Her handler entertains a bidding war for her virginity -a controversial practice that has been criticized for being a-historical in Japan. She wins the highest prize ever -fifteen-thousand yen. Shortly thereafter, World War II breaks out and the old Japanese ways decline. She hides out for years in a rural mountain village once known for beautiful tapestries and kimonos. She returns at the behest of the Chairman’s business partner who wishes for her to entertain the American occupiers as a geisha so their business will succeed. She accepts and a series of events lead her to believe she has disgraced herself, only to find that the Chairman has been in love with her and supporting her the whole time. He was the one who initially pushed the rival house to pursue her. They embrace in love for a Hollywood ending, though she admits she can only be “half a wife” as a geisha.

The film was produced by Spielberg. It received mixed reviews, an oddity considering its expansive project and clear Oscar-bait, star-padded production.

As always John Williams’s musical score is phenomenal, the scenes of pre-war Japan are stunning, and the acting is terrific. However this film has been criticized for being too “Hollywood” by using Chinese actors to portray traditional Japanese roles, using tired ‘oriental’ stereotypes. The film has also been criticized for being far too formulaic as a soap opera. I believe objections can also be made on behalf of American men, portrayed as bestial oafs who are as licentious as they are incompetent. Nevertheless, it is a powerful film. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, and won three, none of them the major awards (Best Actor, Best Film and so on).

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