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Memoirs of a Geisha: The Film

Almost four years after I read the novel by Arthur Golden, I finally watched the movie that was said to cater toward American audience, or non-Asians in general. Starring Li Gong, Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang, and Youki Kudoh, the film invited a dispute over its credibility on the fact that three Chinese actresses were playing geishas—traditional, female Japanese entertainers whose skills include performing various Japanese arts such as classical music and dance. The political tension between China and Japan in 2005 might have fueled the casting controversy in which some of the most prominent roles, including Sayuri, Mahema, and Hatsumomo, did not go to Japanese actresses (although it’s agreed upon that the cast is box office-proof internationally).

Memoirs of a Geisha revolves around a young girl, named Chiyo, who is sold into the life of a geisha and her struggle as a geisha to find love. Chiyo’s road to become a geisha was thorny. She was constant the target of bullying from a senior geisha who hated anyone more successful than she was and who thrived to rid of all prospective rivals. Even though the senior geisha had falsely accused her, faulted her, and rendered her debut a standstill, her determination to become a geisha did not spring from the inventive to revenge on her enemy. The book focuses on Sayuri’s struggle and her search for love, hoping that one day, as a successful, well-sought geisha, she will become part of the life of the chairman, who had shown her kindness and gave her a handkerchief as a keepsake. The movie, dropping the details of a geisha training and the nuances of artistic rituals, emphasizes the intricate relations between four women who aspire to become geishas of their times.

Despite strong performances, the screenplay was lacking, the characters not engaging, the story (145 minutes) seems to have dragged on and, in deleting some of the details that have proven to be indispensable, it affords no real insights on being a geisha, other than the vicious competition and effacement between geishas. If Arthur Golden’s novel is meant to be an epic drama, the movie presents itself as an overripe melodrama that climaxes at the outcome of feuding geishas. Unlike the novel, the movie really lacks the drive.

40 Responses

  1. I feel the same. There was so much wanting in the film. Then again, it’s impossible to capture all the nuances of the novel in a film. Don’t we all agree it’s very rarely done? The most recent movie I’ve seen that was based on a book I’ve read was Atonement. I probably would’ve loved it had I not read the book. As it is, I couldn’t help noticing everything that wasn’t there.

  2. Interesting you should write this. I loved the book, and got about half way through the film when I was distracted by something. I always meant to watch the end of it, but for some reason haven’t got round to it. I think this is a reflection of how the film failed to engage me.

  3. Like Jackie, I also got distracted halfway through this movie and never made it back to it. I’m pretty sure I was distracted by a puppy with a fluffy tail that was walking by the window…not a film I enjoyed.

  4. Never even saw the movie, although I’m generally attracted to such movies. Isn’t this the book that went into the pool?

  5. Erm.. the book is on the shelf (still unread) and I haven’t seen the movie either. I guess I’ll just stick with the book?!

  6. Loved the book, but never bothered with the movie after hearing mixed reviews. I think I’ll let it stay that way 🙂

  7. I watched the film awhile back, although the book had been waiting to be read for some time before that (and is still in my TBR pile 😦 ) and thought the film was a big pile of pants!. I just found it impossible to “get into” the film but then again, it could be that I find Ziyi Zhang to be a terrible actress, and thereby negatively influencing me with regards the film.

  8. I liked the book, pretty much loathed the film. Why weren’t more Japanese actors used in it? Maybe because I’m a screenwriter, I too, felt the screenplay was weak, wanting. There were so many other major problems I had with the film – the weird photography, the cheesy sets…I wish I had just kept to the book and not bothered with the film. Grr.

  9. I agree that this movie just fell flat. I’d read the book again, but warn people away from the movie.

  10. claire:
    The film has so much potential from the beginning. The scenes that led to the separation of the sisters are amazingly done. The props, the artistry of the costumes, and the set that replicate the Kyoto streets of 1940s—they are tell-tale signs of a successful production. But unfortunately it focuses too much on the geisha’s feuds. I was looking for more on the geisha training.

  11. Jackie (Farm Lane Books):
    At various points of the movie I was distracted as well. The scene with the the arrival of an American general, with whom Nobu and the Chairman wants Sayuri to be acquainted, the whole excursion to Kagoshima, was flat and wasn’t even from the book! I would like the director to focus more on the making of a geisha, which Arthur Golden has delineated in the book.

  12. Elena:
    Ha! I would say the puppy might be more engaging than the film. I am sorry that the movie has just fallen flat with all the elements that are set for a success. I’m not surprised that it only won three Oscars and they are all in the art categories.

  13. It being geared “toward American audience, or non-Asians in general” is an excellent summation of one of the reasons I found the film lacking. It was like a bad tourist trip, where one visits Japan and skips the local sites and cuisine for the more western, well-known and familiar. Having lived in Japan for many years, watching Chinese actors portray Japanese dissolved the suspension of disbelief. And as a Korean it bugs me that Hollywood feeds into “all Asians look alike”. (Today, I overheard again someone asking my Chinese landlord if we’re related.)

  14. Sandy:
    I say proceed with caution. The film is not an invigorating experience! And Sandy…I’ve gotta award you the name of Most Thoughtful and Loyal reader to this blog. I dropped the book into the swimming pool when I vacationed in Thailand! I fell asleep and the book slipped off my lap and plunged right into the swimming pool. Tremendous rescue effort was launched with the use of a hair blow dryer! 🙂

  15. gnoegnoe:
    Stick with the book for the cultural details and story, watch the movie if you’re keen on artistry and costumes. 🙂

  16. JoAnn:
    You won’t miss anything if you skip the movie.

  17. cheeky angel:
    Ziyi Zhang might be inexperienced and unetched in the company of Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh, but I find her performance in Memoirs of a Geisha satisfactory. She has to work on her English. 🙂

  18. cheeky angel:
    Oh…I think you’ll enjoy the book so much more than the film, which has fast-forwarded some of the details that hinge on the feuds between Ziyi Zhang and Gong Li’s characters. Also massively edited and skipped in the movie is how the apprenticeship days of Sayuri and Pumpkin have backfired later in the film.

  19. mari:
    The prominent roles went to Chinese actresses probably because they have been cinema fixtures, internationally known. The props and costumes are pretty although I learned later that the entire set was built in the CBS studios in Culver City. 🙂

  20. Jessica:
    I would re-read the book as well. It’s one of those twist-and-turn story that is set in an epic time.

  21. Mish:
    Some of my American friends would tell me Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese all look alike! Maybe this is the reason why the director think the Chinese actresses would pass for Japanese women. I did not expect much out of the film when it first came out to the theater because other than the costumes, the whole portrayal of Japan during WW2 would be inevitably watered down. To an average foreigner who has not been in touch with Asian culture (kinda like eating in PF Chang), the movie seems very authentic and is done with such grandeur.

  22. I read the book way back when, and saw the movie a few years ago. I remember being utterly engrossed by the book, but can remember very little about the movie. It wasn’t a movie I thought was bad, but it certainly didn’t capture me like the book did!

  23. I remember reading the book first before watching the film. And of course the book is better! Isn’t that always the case? 😛

  24. I actually found all the 3 actresses to be terrible in the film and like Mish said, I think it was terrible and disrespectful to use non-Japanese actresses to play the geishas. It totally drives me up the wall when they use any oriental-looking person to portray a certain ethnicity regardless of whether that actor/ actress is of the said ethnicity. However to the ignoramuses in Hollywood, all asians look the same, so it doesn’t matter who they get to play the part(s).

  25. Steph:
    I think the movie fails to capture me because the plot seems to be disjointed. I understand not every single details can be put into the film but it seems to “fast-forward” too much to lose the coherence.

  26. Melody:
    I think it’s almost always the case because the author was the person who came up with the story. 🙂

  27. cheeky angel:
    Wow you’ve got a strong point there! That reminds me the movie Seven Years in Tibet, which was based on a true story of an Austrian mountain expeditioner who made the escape from internment camp in India to Tibet. The film use pretty much all Tibetans in the cast. Hollywood has no excuse to be so ignorant.

  28. I liked the book and the movie too….

  29. Agreed that the film didn’t do justice to the book. However, I did enjoy the film for the stunning cinematography. It was really a beautiful film.

    I recently posted on my fascination with minutiae in literature. I love those titles that can take me into a different world from my own and that show me how people very far removed from myself live their daily lives. Memoirs of a Geisha was one of those books that captivated me for its delicate details and stories of everyday life. It was fascinating!

  30. I remember watching the movie a couple years ago. I found it to be enjoyable, but it also dragged on a lot. I haven’t read the book yet, but I plan to in the future. I know so many people who have read it and really enjoyed it.

  31. Beautiful scenary and actors but beyond that very disappointing. I completely agree with you. LOVED the book though.

  32. Excellent review. That’s exactly what I thought. Although the love story with the Chairman is a running theme in the book, the fascination for me was the life of a geisha — the training, the mentoring system, the private lives within the house, war years . . .

    The characters in the movie fell flat and it was turned into a chick flick. Even the fire (which didn’t follow the book) didn’t have the right impact because the value and meaning of the kimonos were lost to the the audience.

    Anyway, I’m often disappointed in films adapted from books, but this was especially poor.

  33. Staci:
    I thought the movie was just okay. It’s a bit dragging.

  34. Andi:
    I enjoyed the cinema cinematography, consider that almost the entire movie was film in sets built in the CBS studio in Culver City. The costumes are beautiful. As I say, the attention of the details is cut out for a great film, but the plot is lacking.

  35. justicejenniferreads:
    The film began to drag when Sauri had a fallout with Hatsumono. Then it nose-dived to a slight deviation from the book that I found a bit disappointing.

  36. Jennygirl:
    The book cannot be replaced. 🙂

  37. Beth F:
    My question to Hollywood is: how can you cut out the details of a geisha’s training when you strive to portray the life of a geisha? The young Sayuri didn’t want tobecome a geisha, her incentive to become one–the most excellent one, is to pursue a relationship with the Chairman. I feel a big part of the geisha’s soul is missing if you neglect the struggle to become one.

  38. Re: Cheeky angel’s statement that all three actresses were terrible is so wrong! Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh are terrific actors. Ziyi Zhang is pretty, but not there yet in terms of a presence on screen–so that is debatable. “Terrible” is probably the wrong adjective. Even the best actor in the world cannot compensate for a badly written screenplay.

  39. To Rick: I said that the performances of the 3 actresses to be terrible and not them as people. Some like these 3 actresses and some don’t. Each to their own, I say.

  40. Hey Matthew I disagree with your comment that Ziyi Zhang has to work on her English.

    By that you assume that she would prefer to work in Western Films rather than Chinese films. That she intends to break the Hollywood bank and cash-in.

    I watch a good many Japanese TV dramas and ever so often they will say a few words in English, and to my ears their English is awlward but I wouln’t criticize them for it.

    I have studied Cantonese and Japanese with the intent to speak those languages, and I can say without a doubt that native speakers hearing my mangled Cantonese or fumbled Japanese would prefer English from me.

    As for Memoirs of a Geisha, I haven’t read the book, but I did see the movie. I do admit disappointment – but it was a look back in time. They had to create the entire ‘city’.

    If you go to Kyoto today, and visit the Gion district, you will see Geishas or maybe they’re maikos (geisha trainees) around dinner time as they’re on their way to the okiya.

    In the modern city setting they look out of place, but I’m sure that within the okiya, this doesn’t come to mind at all.

    I did a piece involving Memoirs of a Geisha in my own blog. Here is a link.

    http://jmmnewaov2.wordpress.com/2009/10/20/on-the-road-again/

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