MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA – THE SUBLIME ART
The mysterious Geisha of old (and contemporary) Japan were in reality artists
who sublimated their own desires for their art – the art of entertaining men,
not sexually, but literally. This is a strange notion for Westerners, yet it was
a Westerner, a male at that, who wrote all about it in Memoirs of a Geisha. Now
it’s a movie made in Hollywood, directed by Rob Reiner and starring famous
Chinese actresses. Here’s a background briefing...
Geisha have long been figures of fascination in Japan and throughout the world.
For centuries, they have emerged from their homes at dusk like butterflies from
a cocoon for a night’s round of teahouse engagements. Social evenings have
always been an important part of business in Japan, and the presence of geisha
reflects well on the host who can afford such glamorous companions.
"Set in a mysterious and exotic world"
Set in a mysterious and exotic world which still casts a potent spell today,
Memoirs of a Geisha begins in the years before World War II, when a Japanese
child is torn from her penniless family to work as a servant in a geisha house.
Despite a treacherous rival who nearly breaks her spirit, the girl blossoms into
the legendary geisha, Sayuri. Beautiful and accomplished, Sayuri captivates the
most powerful men of her day, but is haunted by her secret love for the one man
beyond her reach.
Neither wife nor prostitute, a geisha is an artist who earns her living
entertaining powerful men. The word gei (pronounced gay) means “art” in
Japanese. A geisha is a trained dancer, singer and musician, as well as a witty
conversationalist. She laughs at her client’s jokes — and never tells his
secrets. She creates drama with a simple flick of her fan.
Years of hard work and self-discipline have transformed her into this refined
creature, but underneath her binding layers of kimono and neutral mask of
make-up is a flesh and blood woman with her own history, disappointments and
dreams. The secrets she guards most closely belong to her own heart.
The geisha districts described so vividly in Arthur Golden’s novel still exist
today, and authentic geisha continue to entertain in elegant old teahouses. They
dress, groom themselves and perform as geisha have for centuries. Women who
become geisha today are often drawn to the profession through an interest in the
traditional arts and may remain in it only a few years. Once their country’s
most fashionable women, top geisha were the supermodels of their day until
“modern” came to be defined as Western in Japan.
Memoirs of a Geisha begins in 1929, near the end of the geishas’ golden era.
Told as a fable from a disappearing world, the film is set in a fictional
hanamachi or geisha district.
As Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) enters this hidden world, she is taught that a geisha is
not free to love, or to pursue her own destiny. Her mentor, the legendary geisha
Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), understands the limits of an intimate relationship with
a special patron or danna, and teaches Sayuri to keep her feelings tightly
reined. Unlike Sayuri’s defiant rival Hatsumomo (Gong Li), Mameha knows that a
proper geisha cannot afford to indulge her passion for any man.
Yet Sayuri cannot forget a moment of unexpected kindness she experienced at an
early age. The memory of that moment shimmers like a mirage, and sustains her
through years of suffering. Looking back at her life, she remembers “a little
girl with more courage than she knew,” and reflects, “These are not the memoirs
of an Empress, nor of a Queen. These are memoirs of another kind.”
Ziyi Zhang experienced a not uncommon reaction after reading Arthur Golden’s
novel, Memoirs of a Geisha. “I couldn’t believe that a man wrote this book about
the life of a woman,” says the actress. “And I couldn’t believe it was an
American man writing with such detail about a little-known Japanese
"the exotic world"
Director Rob Marshall savoured the exotic world in which the story unfolds,
but he was just as taken by the universality of the young orphan Chiyo’s plight,
and her eventual triumph after an accidental meeting changes the course of her
life. “This story lives in a very specific world, and yet the underlying theme
of the triumph of the human spirit against all odds connects to any culture,” he
says. “The fact that this one child, after being taken from her home and sold
into slavery, can survive and ultimately find love is deeply moving to me.
Especially when that love is forbidden to her.”
“Culturally, it was one of the most fascinating stories I had ever encountered,”
says Stephen Spielberg, who was originally going to direct the film, but
schedules forced him to relinquish that job; he stayed on as executive producer.
“I was very moved by the love story, by the rivalry between Sayuri and Hatsumomo,
and by the test of friendship between the Chairman and Nobu. I thought audiences
all over the world would be fascinated because it’s not just culturally
significant as legend or history from Japan. It’s relevant to people in every
country. It was certainly relevant to me.”
Marshall gathered the key members of his team for a trip to Japan. “I had
decided to tell Sayuri’s story as an impression of a time and place, but needed
to thoroughly understand the reality first,” the director explained. “We all
agreed that total immersion in Sayuri’s world was the only way to begin, so we
travelled to Kyoto together to experience everything we could.”
The group of 10 visited museums and shrines, toured a kimono factory, attended a
sumo match, rode in rickshaws, scouted the coast of the Sea of Japan, attended
spring festival dances and watched an apprentice geisha (maiko) apply her makeup
and dress. Marshall and John DeLuca, the film’s co-producer and choreographer,
were invited backstage to witness the legendary actor-dancer Tamasaburo Bando
prepare for a Kabuki performance. Their Japanese hosts also arranged for an
evening of geisha entertainment at the exclusive Ichiriki Teahouse.
Absorbing the atmosphere of Gion and other hanamachi (geisha districts) was
essential to their mission. Australian Dion Beebe, the film’s director of
photography, director Rob Reiner and Oscar-winning production designer John
Myhre “would let ourselves get lost and just take photographs,” says Myhre.
“When it came time to construct our buildings, we’d go through our pictures and
say ‘that roof would look really nice with this type of window, which would look
great with this type of door.’”
Potential locations for filming were identified, but Marshall, Myhre, Beebe and
executive producer Patricia Whitcher realized they could not shoot the entire
movie in Japan. “When we analyzed the amount of work we had to do in the
streets,” Whitcher explains, “there was just no way we could disrupt an active
community for that long to recreate what we needed to tell this story.”
Also, Japan’s hanamachi, or geisha districts, had changed greatly since the
period during which the film occurs. “Even in the beautiful ancient cities, we
could not find an area of businesses that was untouched by modern elements,”
Marshall says. But the group came home inspired by their shared experience and
by the collective set of references that they would draw from over the coming
To help his actors with the fundamentals, Marshall brought them to Los Angeles
six weeks early for “Geisha boot camp,” an intensive period of rehearsals and
classes with a team of experts who guided the actors through the world of the
"perfect geisha body language"
“It was something very new to me,” said Gong Li, a star in China since her
1987 debut in Red Sorghum. “We rehearsed every single scene, every word.”
The actresses rehearsed in kimonos to adapt to the weight, feel and flow of the
elaborate garments. Dance classes helped them perfect geisha body language. “You
cannot move like you are wearing jeans,” observed Youki Kudoh, who plays
Pumpkin. “You are restricted, so you reconstruct yourself. You learn to be
Published January 19, 2006
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