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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 sub-culture.”

"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 months.

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 geisha.

"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 elegant.”

Published January 19, 2006

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