Sunday, May 07, 2006

Memoirs of a Geisha: Worth Seeing?

Memoirs of a Geisha

About two years ago I picked up a book from Barnes & Noble’s bargain book shelf for six dollars. It was the hard cover edition of Arthur Golden’s book Memoirs of a Geisha. Several years later and after a lot of controversy the Hollywood film adaptation of the book is released. Granted I’m slow in getting around to viewing this film, I thought it was worth mentioning.

One of the funny things for me about this movie was the controversy which surrounded it. Many American’s are complaining that it is merely a Hollywood representation (or fantasy) of an idealized 30’s era Japan. Isn’t this what the art of cinema is; a vivid fantasy to lose ourselves in? I find this funny because most the critics and especially the (generally poorly educated) American audiences who view this film will not have read the book or know much about Japanese culture which inspired the novel. That said, the movie does contain a vast and accurate portrayal of a specific Japanese period, a pre-war era which brings insight and richness to the unknown world of the Geisha.

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The other instance of controversy arises in the casting choices of the three main actresses. Many viewers have complained that the three leads are of Chinese descent and that this is a form of type-casting which shows Hollywood’s ignorance and sponsors a sort of pan-Asian world view in which all people with slanted eyes meld into one generic race. All I can say is for all the American’s and Chinese who are up in arms about this subject are forgetting that this is a movie, and like any artistic work, there are times when certain artistic choices are made to tell the best story possible. Other times it is about drawing in a crowd with famous faces. There are some who think this film takes a very superficial look at Japanese customs and others cater to a more politically correct (faceless) world view complaining that a movie about an important Japanese tradition should star three Chinese actresses is shocking.

Inter-Asian acting

Yet nobody ever complained about Reese Witherspoon or Jodie Foster’s shaky British accents nor has anyone complained about Ewan McGregor or Ralph Fiennes acting as red blooded Americans? All I can say is that certain people are trying to use political correctness debates to push their political agendas (a desperate cry for attention) but they are overlooking the quality of the acting and the art. “Memoirs of a Geisha” is a well acted film, and Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yoeh, and Gong Li were cast for their skills and not their stunning looks alone. They have been seen before by American audiences, and carry a certain weight of celebrity recognition, something which Hollywood needed to try and make up for the enormous budget of this epic film. Even with the inter-Asian acting there are quite a few prominent Japanese actors, and to say that a film about Japan should contain only Japanese people is ignoring the wealth of gifted international actors that are available today. If anything this film shows a type of cultural and social mingling which brings more awareness among the various races of the world. And with the tension between Japan and countries like China and Korea, I think this is a bold step forward in helping these countries bridge cultural gaps and years of tension and misunderstanding.

Quality Acting

You may be surprised at the prominent Japanese cast that is in this film. You may recognize Ken Watanabe from films like “Batman Begins” and the “Last Samurai.” Also a personal fan favorite of mine was Koji Yakusho known for the cult classic “Shall We Dance?” (And no, it’s not the Richard Gere/J.Lo remake). To my amusement there was a new face which I instantly fell in love with, a young Japanese girl called Suzuka Ohgo who plays the young Sayuri (Chiyo). She not only has one of the cutest smiles in cinema today, but she had a charm about her and I’m looking forward to seeing Ohgo-chan do more acting in the future. Many other Japanese and Japanese American’s make appearances in this film as either actors or supporting cast. Even the famous Japanese Chef Nobu Matsuhisa has a cameo appearance.

Controversy aside Rob Marshall’s epic saga about Geisha is a highly visual, colorful, and emotionally complex film. It may not be the most perfect means of insight into Japanese culture, because believe me the only way to really experience Japan is first hand, but I personally had no problem with the cast or quality acting. Although, I admit that at first I was hesitant about the casting, but when you finally see the actors bring the characters to life you see their great skill and hard work which makes me wish more movies were made with this much love and care. Contrary to popular belief Geisha’s are NOT prostitutes. They are multi-talented and versatile women artists of Japanese high culture. They are keepers of Japan’s traditional arts and customs. There is no sex, full nudity, or even much violence (other than some slaps, hair pulling, and American bomb dropping). In all respects, this is a classy and elegant film which respects its subject matter.

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So how did Hollywood take three of China’s hottest stars and turn them Japanese? The answer is in the name Liza Dalby. Liza Balby is an American anthropologist specializing in Japanese culture. She wrote a book called Geisha based on her experiences with becoming the first (and only) foreigner ever to successfully become a Geisha. Dalby was the voice of experience which helped transform three other foreign women into seemingly authentic Geisha.

The sets, colors, props, and design of the entire movie is highly Japanese. Most everything was imported from Japan or built using authentic Japanese materials imported specifically for this film. Even if the movie gives only an artistic impression of Japan, it’s a richly painted portrait used with authentic tools of the trade. I must say that the art direction, costume design, and make up and hair stylings of this film are stunning to say the least. The hand produced kimonos are some of the most wonderful and beautiful pieces of clothing ever put onto the silver screen.

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My hope is that if Hollywood does continue to based movies in or around the mythical and historical elements of Japan that they continue there quality and respect to Japan as so elaborately portrayed in films like “The Last Samurai” and “Memoirs of a Geisha.” If you liked this film or films about Geisha I also highly recommend "The Sisters of Gion" (Gion no Shimai) which, interestingly enough, was made authentically in the 30's era Japan in which this film takes place.

If you’re interested in Japan or seeing a more or less historically accurate fiction of the country and culture, “Memoirs of a Geisha” will not disappoint. If you’re interested in history and Japanese Geisha, this movie will also be for you. If you like great acting and high end drama, this is definitely a worthy film which won’t disappoint. My final analysis is that Rob Marshall’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” is a great piece of cinematic art which opens up and spurs a desire for greater cultural awareness giving everyone valuable insight into the wonderful world of Japan. Even if it is innately a Hollywood production, the care and attention to detail is there, and if you respect quality film making, without holding on to the bias of political agendas, I think you’ll find this movie dazzling if not spectacular.

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