Memoirs Of A Geisha

Film Review by Jeffrey Winters

“Memoirs of a Geisha” has been out for several months nationwide and is up for two Golden Globe awards this week.

Director Rob Marshall (“Chicago”) takes the 1997 best-seller by Arthur Goden and directs a sumptuous and beautifully filmed story (with cinematographer Bion Beebe) of pre-war Japan. We watch two daughters sold by their poor fisherman father into different environments in Kyoto. The elder daughter is sold into prostitution and the younger girl, who has unusual blue eyes, goes to a geisha house.

At first I was captivated by this foreign culture and the look of the adult geishas in beautiful kimonos. Many scenes took place in their home environment which was dark with traditional Japanese wooden plank construction. The attention to detail was superb. But after about thirty minutes a claustrophobia set in. The camera work stays in close without offering panorama or long shot views. When we do see the city the view is cropped. The visual effect becomes tedious, like looking at rain for days on end.

This is a love story about a young girl who is transformed into the most

legendary pre-war geisha. Ziyi Zhang plays the adult Sayuri who has mastered the art of charm, music, dance and the ability to make a man feel stupendous.

We are told that a geisha is not a prostitute, although that protocol breaks down after the war during the American occupation in the 1940’s.

The director uses a quick montage to show how Sayuri develops into a famous geisha, but leaves out the details of her real training. We could have seen scenes such as a sequence of learning how to hold and pour from a tea cup, learning how to smile and how to answer a question with brevity, charm and intelligence. In Japanese culture the work that goes into making a geisha takes extraordinary discipline. Beauty is not enough. Leaving out the training brings a hollow feeling to part of the film.

I wanted to enjoy “Memoirs of a Geisha” far more than I did, but the central love story lacks emotional punch. As a young girl, Chiyo (later named Sayuri) is depressed by her bleak life. Until one day when she is outside on a bridge (the best shot of Kyoto) and a kind man called the Chairman buys her sugared ice. This kindness brings her hope and a sense of love for this man. The Chairman is played by Ken Watanabe who out staged Tom Cruise in “The Last Samurai.” Interestingly enough, that film showed the actual Samurai training drills which brought meaning to the film.

In additon to the lead, two women play pivotal roles in the film. In the geisha house Hatsumono (Gong Li) becomes the jealous and angry nemesis to Sayuri. Their constant battle brings tension to the story. More dramatic still is the role of Mameha who becomes Sayuri’s mentor. Michelle Yeoh as Mameha conveys the skill, charm, and political astuteness of a skilled and notorious geisha. Yeoh offers the most authentic acting of all the actresses.

“Memoirs of a Geisha” does not emotionally capture the sense of rapture and love in this remarkable story. Consequently the film displays beauty and human suffering in a detached manner. That’s not why I go to the movies.