Memoirs of a Geisha
It is at first poetically ominous. Dark waters, mysterious boat rides, labyrinthine houses, and death-angled streets teetering with cobble- stones and uncertainty. The endless patter of drenching rain sets the rhythm of misfortune. In turns, it becomes sumptuous and lush. Flowing silk in rainbow flourishes, delicate steps and contained momentum, cherry blossoms on intricate foot bridges and sweet ice. Beauty offers salvation in the grace of temptation restrained. There is no subtlety about it. The production design by John Myhre is exacting and evocative in its capture of a Depression-era hanamachi, as in its painting of the parks and the countryside, but the Japan that stands behind the story in Rob Marshall's adaptation of Arthur Golden's wildly successsful novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, is very much the stuff of fairytale, old razzle dazzle Hollywood style. The telling of the tale (screenplay by Robin Swicord) follows the same simple by-numbers pattern, replete with evil stepmothers, jealous rivals, and a prince charming whose kiss is most eagerly awaited. All that's missing is the Disney animation.
The novel did not feel quite so pro forma. Though not without its hokeyness, Golden's meticulous research (informed in great detail, reportedly, by geisha-author Mineko Iwasaki) translates on the page to the feel of an insider's eyeview, despite Golden's gender, race, age and national distinctions from the geisha world he lays out before us. The essence of his fictional memoirs is in his grasp of the paradox: a life designed to create desire in others and to stifle it in oneself. He leads us with Sayuri, our geisha, through her discovery of her own identity, of her womanhood, her womanliness, her being wanted, and her wanting. The unstressed parallels with what once was the ideal for girls even here in America gives the text an eery grounding. Ladylike and geisha- trained seem not so far apart. The book's exotic backdrop and smatterings of Japanese words and phrases allow for the foreignness to couch the familiar in fathomable depths. Golden's intrusion into the secret world of women is excused: he seems to get it.
On the screen, however, the sociocultural detail is lost. Chiyo (a spright and energized Suzuka Ohgo), the child orphaned and ripped from her sister's side, grown up to be the striking-eyed geisha Sayuri (an opaque and porcelained Ziyi Zhang) no longer stands in quietly as icon of the female condition, but serves only as a Japanese dressup doll for the princess fantasy: Cinderella scrubbing the floors of the okiya for bad cop madam Mother (Kaori Momoi) and good cop duenna ("I'll beat you hard so she doesn't beat you harder") Auntie (Tsai Chin), while her vile stepsisters dress for the prince's ball (that one such stepsister is named "Pumpkin" -- Youki Kudoh -- suddenly takes on a different ring). She's a little lost Dorothy far from home split between the wicked witch (Gong Li as rival Hatsumomo, a stunning presence, even with loosed unkempt hair and drunken viciousness, throwing around fire in her undone kimono no less maniacally than Margaret Hamilton on a broomstick) and the good witch (Michelle Yeoh as mentor Mameha, even more remarkably bland in her floating bubble than Glenda), and she's out to find her wizard--because of the wonderful things he does.
Critics of the Marshall film have argued against its inauthenticity: Chinese actresses stand in for the lead Japanese characters. With all the mixing and matching and insistent color blindness that befalls us in film today, I found that undaunting. I was undaunted too by the faux Asian staccato of the dialogue -- it seemed part of Marshall's musical direction. What troubled me was the loss in translation of mood and meaning. The loss of the woman's struggle to the girlie girl princess world where women are old and ugly queeny things. The transfer from sublimated seduction to simple teasing (a glimpse of white skin an unspoken invitation). And the reduction of sexuality to a literal "who's your daddy" climax. Forget the cheesy metaphor of eels and caves that both book and film insist upon, fantasy love in Memoirs of a Geisha takes up the traditional tack. It's about working the shoe that fits: running in glass slippers, slipping on ruby slippers, buying up Manolo Blahniks or dancing in 12-inch platform sandals. A balancing act. Precarious, but nothing more.
Gone is the book's parallel irony of the judgment of men -- the better man rejected for his outer ugliness -- the film pays it only passing homage (Koji Yakusho is wasted as Nobu, whom the film sees merely as dramatic obstacle). Here, the awaited prince, sought after wizard, Mr. Big. or Chairman (Ken Watanabe), as the text would have it, is both good looking and a patently fatherly figure. Not someone you can have, but someone you can have take care of you. As long as you know not to expect too much. That last is key. And key to the film's failure, although it was part of the book's cautionary insights.
Marshall, whose expansion of the musical Chicago filled the spaces with charm, here removes the same in his abbreviation of the source text. For all of the sensitivities the novel embraces, the film gives us little more than affirmation of all the worst lessons of girlhood ideals past. Memoirs of a Geisha, is ultimately just 2 1/2 hours invested in confirming that beauty is as beauty does. Virginia Slims, anyone?
©2005 Shari L. Rosenblum