Memoirs of a Geisha

Dreaming of Gion

The bestselling novel Memoirs of a Geisha telling the story of the life of a famous Kyoto geisha finally hits movie theatres.

by Lesley Smith

Geisha. The word summons images of beautiful women dressed in exquisite kimono, serving sake to businessmen in paper-paneled rooms. These charming figures embodying the Japanese ideal of beauty, politeness and perfection have long captivated people in the West, only to be wrongly labeled as high class prostitutes.

Geisha literally means ‘artisan’ in Japanese, and it is a title given to women who are highly trained in arts, music and dance. Now a dying tradition, geisha are experts in their chosen fields, be it the shamisen, dance or the tea ceremony. They typically live and work in the various geisha districts of Kyoto, such as Gion Kobu and Pontocho -- although there are geisha working in Tokyo. These districts, known as hanamachi (flower towns) or karyukai (‘the flower and willow world’) are matriarchal societies with unwritten codes of secrecy which have survived, more or less unchanged, for centuries.

Originally published in 1997, Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha relates the life of the fictional geisha Sayuri in the form of an autobiography. The novel confuses many readers, as it is not clear until the acknowledgements that Sayuri's tale is in fact fictional. The novel's intriguing subject matter and style of writing made it a best-seller. It has been translated into over thirty-two languages, and it spent two years at the top of the New York Times best-seller list.

Memoirs of a Geisha

Nitta Sayuri, an elderly geisha living in New York’s Waldorf Towers, recounts her tale to her friend Jakob Haarhuis, a professor of Japanese history. She tells how as a child, known then as Sakamoto Chiyo, she was raised in the fishing village of Yoroido, only to be sold to the Nitta okiya (geisha house) in the Gion geisha district of the ancient capital, Kyoto. However, the resident geisha, Hatsumomo takes an instant dislike to the girl with the strange grey eyes. Chiyo's only friend is Pumpkin, another of the maids at the okiya, but Hatsumomo is determined to ruin their friendship by taking Pumpkin on as her Younger Sister, and teaching her how to be a geisha.

Eventually, Chiyo is taken under the wing of the famous geisha Mameha, and she is transformed into Sayuri. Throughout her training, however, Sayuri searches for a man that she met as a child who took pity on her during her darkest hours, a man that she is destined to love: The Chairman. Yet Sayuri must also contend with Hatsumomo's hatred for both her and Mameha as she battles to become one of Kyoto's most successful geisha.

Memoirs of a Geisha

Despite the popularity of Arthur Golden's first novel, the publication of the book was not without controversy. As part of his research, Golden interviewed the acclaimed Kyoto geiko (the more correct term for geisha, which literally means 'woman of art') Iwasaki Mineko, acknowledging her in the final pages of the book. Iwasaki-san is one of the most famous geiko of the twentieth century, as well as being an accomplished dancer of the Inoue school. She met various foreign dignitaries and royalty during the course of her career before retiring abruptly in 1980 at the age of twenty-nine.

After seeing a galley of the Japanese translation of Memoirs of a Geisha in 1999 (published in Japanese as Sayuri), Iwasaki-san discovered that not only had the character of Nitta Sayuri been based on her, but that she had been acknowledged as a major source for the book, despite having asked for anonymity. This broke one of the most sacred laws of the Gion Kobu karyukai, and the geiko was quoted as having contemplated ritual suicide after receiving death threats from other geiko, who believed that Iwasaki-san had broken her vow of silence. She later sued Golden for defamation and breach of confidentiality. The case was settled out of court earlier this year.

Memoirs of a Geisha

Iwasaki-san published her autobiography Geisha of Gion (known in the US as Geisha, A Life) to set straight many of the misconceptions portrayed in Memoirs of a Geisha, including the issue of mizuage.

In the book, mizuage, which literally means ‘to take out of the water’ and actually refers to a geisha's earnings, involves Sayuri's virginity being auctioned off to the highest bidder, a physician named Dr. Crab with a fetish for blood samples from his various conquests. In reality, mizuage is a coming of age ceremony that does not involve sex; it is merely a change in hairstyle. Golden's version is based on an event of the same name that was practiced by prostitutes and high class courtesans.

Memoirs of a Geisha

Directed by Rob Marshall, the theatrical version of Memoirs of a Geisha has been a long time coming. Due to open in December, it comprises an all-star cast, including Ziyi Zhang (The House of Flying Daggers), Watanabe Ken (The Last Samurai and Batman Begins), Gong Li (2046), Michelle Yeoh (Tomorrow Never Dies and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) and Kudoh Youki (Blood: The Last Vampire).

The casting of the film caused much controversy due to the fact that the three main roles (Nitta Sayuri, her oneesan or 'Older Sister' Mameha, and her nemesis Hatsumomo) were given to Chinese actresses. Meanwhile, many Chinese were outraged as the Chinese characters often used for the word 'geisha' can easily be misspelled to mean 'prostitute.' At a time when relations between Japan and China are at an all-time low, the idea of Chinese women portraying what many Chinese mistakenly believed to be Japanese prostitutes is the ultimate insult.

Memoirs of a Geisha

Much of the film was shot on location in Japan, utilizing locations rarely seen in films. However, the back streets of Kyoto were too modern to be used, so sections of the city, circa 1920, were re-created on three sound stages in Los Angeles. For added authenticity, the crew visited a kimono factory and numerous museums and shines while in Japan. They attended the seasonal dances, and watched as a maiko (an apprentice geisha) put on her makeup. The crew even participated in a party entertained by geisha at Gion Kobu's famous Ichiriki Ochaya, the three hundred year old teahouse featured not only in Memoirs of a Geisha but also in Tale of the Forty-Seven Ronin.

With a beautiful soundtrack composed by John Williams, the film takes the audience on a journey through the opulent world of kimono and dance, and the sisterhood of the Flower and Willow world. While its history may be littered with controversy, Memoirs of a Geisha is sure to be one of the most visually stunning films of this year.

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