While the 1997 best-selling novel "Memoirs of a Geisha" was written by an American, Arthur Golden
, he absorbed enough of Japanese culture in his years of travel and study to convey the mysterious world of the geisha as one of subtlety, discretion, ritual and tradition. The movie version, directed by "Chicago"'s Rob Marshall
and written by Robin Swicord
, has, frankly, Americanized the story. By this I mean the filmmakers make characters crasser, ignore nuances within geisha tradition and give characters attitudes and dialogue highly unlikely for Depression-era Japan. The heroine, who in time becomes a legendary geisha, is modeled in the film more after a willful, modern American teen than a young Japanese woman.
"Memoirs" has generated plenty of heat on its way to the screen. The novel reportedly has been translated into 32 languages and the film production criticized for the casting of three leading Chinese actors -- Ziyi Zhang
, Michelle Yeoh
and Gong Li -- as Japanese. So opening boxoffice grosses will be strong. As an exotic romance set in the lost world of prewar Japan, the film should have sufficient legs to become a hit this holiday season.
The controversy extends beyond the cast, which is a case of a major (Japanese-owned) studio covering an expensive bet with international stars. Here is a film about Japan made by Americans, shot mostly in the U.S. and, of course, in English. Once you accept these compromises in the name of international filmmaking, none is a real deterrent to enjoying this lush period film.
Designer John Myhre
's meticulous re-creation of a 1930s hanamachi or geisha district with its rickety wooden houses, ancients streets and alleys, formal teahouses and sea of nighttime lanterns on a Southern California ranch is an accomplished and credible set. The lavish kimonos, a sumo match, geisha dances, John Williams' lyrical East-meets-West musical score and atmospheric cinematography by Dion Beebe
emphasizing deep, dark colors all are hallmarks of classic Hollywood filmmaking. These are surface delights that might distract from Marshall's tendency to focus on melodrama over intimacy and emotional excess over restraint.
"Memoirs" tells the story of a young child sold to an okiya or geisha household in Kyoto in 1929. Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo
) initially resists her initiation into this new life despite her terror of the doyennes of the domicile, Mother (Kaori Momoi
, whose whiny, sharp voice often grates) and Auntie (Tsai Chin). Adding to her misery, the house's breadwinner, the treacherous geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li), takes an instant dislike to the young girl.
When Chiyo attempts to run away, Mother refuses to put any more money into her geisha training. This relegates her to the status of maid for life. At her lowest point, as she sobs near the city river, a wealthy man she knows only as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) treats her to a sweet and has kind words for her. This encounter transforms her life. She also falls in love with the Chairman.
Later, the hanamachi's legendary geisha, Mameha (Yeoh), takes the youngster under her wing, seeing in the beautiful girl with haunting eyes (now played by Zhang) a possible means to rid herself of her hateful rival Hatsumomo. Mameha makes, in essence, a bet with Mother that all of Chiyo's debts to the okiya will be paid off by her 20th birthday.
So the race is on. The young girl, whose name is changed to Sayuri when she becomes an apprentice geisha, undergoes intense training. In the world of a geisha, a glimpse of flesh under a kimono or a rumor spread by a malicious rival can make or damage a reputation forever. Mameha takes her "younger sister" to teahouses and introduces her to all her clients just as Hatsumomo and her protege, Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh
), do the same. At every turn, Hatsumomo tries to undermine her rivals. All things lead to the auctioning of Sayuri's mizuage (virginity) to her wealthy gentlemen patrons.
The man who displays the most interest, despite his dislike of geishas in general, is the industrialist Nobu (Koji Yakusho). To Sayuri's dismay, Nobu's best friend and partner is the Chairman. No man will pursue a geisha favored by his friend. The man who emerges as Nobu's rival is Dr. Crab Randall Duk Kim
), nicknamed for his appearance, but not before the Baron (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), Mameha's patron, makes improper advances that nearly ruin Sayuri's career.
Naturally, Swicord's screenplay must eliminate characters and take shortcuts to stuff the major activity from the novel into the 144-minute movie. But these shortcuts run roughshod over subtlety. The chess game among these women is reduced to a cat fight. Hatsumomo is a much more formidable opponent than the movie gives her credit: She is clever, sharp and tenacious. The move version forces Gong to pay a spoiled drunk mad with jealousy.
Similarly, Sayuri is brought up to speed much too quickly. She performs a dance on her first night as an apprentice, something that would never happen. She makes sharp ripostes with her rival, dialogue more in tune with a '30s American film comedy than '30s Japanese culture. A dance performance at one point, choreographed by John DeLuca, feels like a modern Western interpretation imposed on Japanese tradition, more "Chicago" than Kyoto as it were.
The acting in all the major roles is astute. Zhang manages to seize the contradictory qualities of her character -- shyness and uncertainty coupled the defiance and iron will -- and mold them into a memorable female character. Yeoh brings just the right dignity and cautious calculation to the role of Sayuri's mentor. Gong puts the necessary sexuality into hateful Hatsumomo. Watanabe and Yakusho make strong impressions as wealthy men reduced to pandering to Yank occupiers after World War II.
The final third of the movie, rushing through the war and occupation, feels anti-climatic, even flat. Admittedly, the novel had a similar problem as this story is strongest when it enters the lost and secret world of women who never can pursue their own happiness.
MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA
Columbia Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment present an Amblin Entertainment/Red Wagon Entertainment production
Director: Rob Marshall
Screenwriter: Robin Swicord
Based on the novel by: Arthur Golden
Producers: Lucy Fisher
, Douglas Wick, Steven Spielberg
Executive producers: Roger Birnbaum
, Gary Barber, Patricia Whitcher
, Bobby Cohen
Director of photography: Dion Beebe
Production designer: John Myhre
Music: John Williams
Co-producer: John DeLuca
Costumes: Colleen Atwood
Editor: Pietro Scalia
. Cast: Sayuri: Ziyi Zhang
Chairman: Ken Watanabe
Mameha: Michelle Yeoh
Nobu: Koji Yakusho
Hatsumomo: Gong Li
Pumpkin: Youki Kudoh
Mother: Kaori Momoi
Auntie: Tsai Chin
Baron: Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa
Dr. Crab: Randall Duk Kim
MPAA rating PG-13
Running time -- 144 minutes