1929, Japan. The little Chiyo and her sister Satsu are sold by poor parents to Mr. Tanaka, who gives Satsu to a whorehouse and Chiyo to the Nitta Okiya, a geisha house in Kyoto, where she meets the beautiful and cruel geisha, Hatsumomo. Because of her eyes of a very rare blue-gray, Chiyo has a great potential as a geisha, but Hatsumomo can’t tolerate competitors and never misses an opportunity to mistreat her: so the girl tries to escape to meet her sister but falls disastrously off a roof.
The “Mother” (mistress of the okiya) punishes her severely, taking her from the condition of maiko (geisha apprentice) to that of servant. Her life will change when, now an adolescent, Mameha, the most famous geisha of Gion, will offer to educate her as maiko: through a hard training, Chiyo will become Sayuri, the most famous geisha in Kyoto.Along with the little Chiyo, we observe amazed the traditions and the mysteries of these women so beautiful and skilled in singing, dance, rituals of tea but also in culture, able of entertaining figures of most exclusive society, and we venture in the hanamachi (geisha district) of the ’30s when the exotic “floating world”, torn by war, was beginning to lose its ancient traditions and to be open to the Western world.
«Remember, Chiyo, 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.»
The reconstruction of the environments and of the atmospheres told in the book, the western gaze but curious with which Golden watched these distant places and times is masterfully rendered in stunning scenery and in rich costumes: the movie, directed by Rob Marshall is, in fact, the adaptation of the disputed book “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden. He was sued by the geisha Mineko Iwasaki, with whom he worked, for defamation and breach of contract, because the novel depicts the geisha as luxury prostitutes and has therefore caused great dishonor to her and to the world of the geisha. Moreover, some people were very annoyed because the major female characters of the movie have not been interpreted by actresses of Japanese nationality.
Memoirs of a Geisha is not a traditional Japanese movie, slow, somber and with a tragic ending: it has a good direction pace and ends with a (almost) happy ending, all accompanied by costumes, music, set design, photography and editing of high quality. When Chiyo becomes the beautiful Sayuri (very well played by an intense and credible Zhang Ziyi), the narration changes, showing the traditions from a more personal point of view: the transition from servant to maiko provides access to the most hidden secrets of these creatures, from training in the arts, taught by the expert Mameha, to the sacrifice of own dreams and desires.
What the movie lacks, however, are the great emotions, that emotional involvement that would have justified the trivialization of the subject in one of the many stories of impossible love and that would have made the film something more than a beautiful fresco to be admired in a detached manner. But it is difficult for a Westerner to understand a shadowy figure like that of the geisha, too often confused as a simple prostitute. The movie is limited to paint the exteriority of this fascinating world: the one on display is not the true Japan (unknowable, according to the Japanese themselves) but its representation through the eyes of sophisticated Westerners.
In my opinion, the movie is a real delight for the eyes and definitely is worth watching it, provided you suspend the “critical assessment” on a story that, sometimes, trivializes a bit too much the loving and exotic stereotypes.
«She paints her face to hide her face. Her eyes are deep water. It is not for geisha to want. It is not for geisha to feel. Geisha is an artist of the floating world. She dances, she sings. She entertains you, whatever you want. The rest is shadows, the rest is secret…»