The elements of nature are a running theme through this film and each of the four main Geisha have an elemental character. Sayuri is water, Mameha is wind, Pumpkin is wood (the equivalent of earth) and Hatsumomo is fire.
There was much discussion about the traditional Geisha hairstyles of the time period and the filmmakers decided to give each character a specific hairstyle that was slightly symbolic of her character. Pumpkin's hair was slightly over-exaggerated with many ornaments to indicate her character's desperation to succeed. Hatsumomo's hair when loose was wild, while her up-do was set with sections of hair dangling out to indicate her character's disregard for tradition, and her loose morals. Mameha's hair was side swept with simple buns or generally loose over one shoulder to give her a simple elegant appearance. Sayuri's hair was always a simple style either in a bun, a braid or a less exaggerated style to indicate her natural beauty and less need of elaborate styles.
The three leading non-Japanese actresses, including Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, and Michelle Yeoh, were put through a six-week crash course on geisha culture through a "geisha boot camp" before production commenced, during which they were trained in traditional geisha practices of musicianship, dance, and tea ceremony.
The makeup the Geishas wear early in this movie is less traditional and more modern so that it translates to a more modern audience; a Geisha of the time rarely ever fully painted her lips, and would either paint the bottom lip, just the top, or partially the center of both. The full painting of lips did not come until after the forties and the fifties, with the increase of Western culture and style.
The collars on the Geishas' kimono indicate their 'status' as a Geisha and give customers an indication of their ranking. A Maiko (apprentice Geisha) wears a red collar to symbolize she is in training while an accomplished Geisha will wear a white collar. This is where the phrase "turning the collar" comes from.
Youki Kudoh, the actress who portrays the adult Pumpkin had to work with dialect coaches and re-learn how to speak with a Japanese accent as although in real life having been born in Japan, speaks with an American accent from living in the USA for a good portion of her life.
Although never fully elaborated on, the dance on stage that Sayuri performs tells the story of a woman who suspects her husband of infidelity and waits outside in the snow to catch her husband leaving his mistress; unfortunately a blizzard sweeps over the land and she succumbs to the elements. In the novel, it was Mameha who performs this dance.
The film was banned in China because Chinese actresses play Japanese geisha. The national film board and the Office for the Administration of Radio, Film and Television claimed that it was banned because the storyline is "too sensitive".
The film was heavily criticized by Asian critics for having Chinese actresses portraying the geishas. In reality, according to producer Lucy Fisher, the producers held an open day for audition for Japanese actresses to audition for those roles. None turned up and they had to turn to other Asian actresses for casting.
The filmmakers decided that the Gion district of modern-day Kyoto (the Geisha district where Arthur Golden's novel is set) looked much too modern to evoke the 1920s and 30s. So, a large set of the Gion district was constructed outside of Los Angeles in Thousand Oaks, California. The detailed set had real cobblestone streets, bridges, a river, period buildings and antique props which evoked the period described in the novel.
According to Colleen Atwood, the costume designer, 250 hand-tailored kimonos were made for the film. She also said that their prints, patterns and colors are bigger and bolder than traditional kimonos.
The film's winter light effect was discovered incidentally days before production. With the silk rigged to prevent rain water from damaging the set, the rigging crew attempted to emulate daylight during night. Gaffer John Buckley threw 3/4 lights from top to bottom of the set through the silk. Thus was the result and it was what Dion Beebe got which he went on to win Best Cinematographer of 2005.
It took a lot of negotiating to get Rob Marshall to direct this film. Since he directed the hit film Chicago (2002) for Miramax, he owed his next film to them. This is a DreamWorks film. It was only because Miramax and DreamWorks have a long history of borrowing talent from each other that they were able to work out a deal.
The Sumo Wrestler who won the match is retired Sumo Wrestler Mainoumi who reached the rank of Komosubi (Junior Champion). He retired in November 1999 and is now a Sumo Announcer for NHK among other things.
Because none of the Japanese rickshaws were large enough for the two women to be comfortably seated next to each other, the rickshaw used for the scenes in which Mameha and Sayuri travel together in one carriage was manufactured in California, using wheels and axles shipped in from Japan.
In defense of the film after the controversial casting, Zhang spoke: "A director is only interested in casting someone he believes is appropriate for a role. For instance, my character had to go from age 15 to 35; she had to be able to dance, and she had to be able to act, so he needed someone who could do all that. I also think that regardless of whether someone is Japanese or Chinese or Korean, we all would have had to learn what it is to be a geisha, because almost nobody today knows what that means, not even the Japanese actors on the film. Geisha was not meant to be a documentary. I remember seeing in the Chinese newspaper a piece that said we had only spent six weeks to learn everything and that that was not respectful toward the culture. It's like saying that if you're playing a mugger, you have to rob a certain number of people. To my mind, what this issue is all about, though, is the intense historical problems between China and Japan. The whole subject is a land mine. Maybe one of the reasons people made such a fuss about Geisha was that they were looking for a way to vent their anger".
Youki Kudoh and Eriko Tamura auditioned for the role of Sayuri but lost out to Ziyi Zhang. However, the casting agents, having been impressed with her audition, allowed Kudoh another chance to audition instead for secondary character Pumpkin, a role which she ended up getting.
The white material that the geisha slept on was rice flour. Having a geisha's hair done was a long and arduous process, so they were taught to sleep on a raised pillow, and rice flour was placed around their head to remind them not to fall off the pillow. If they did, it meant returning to the hairdresser to have your hair done all over again.
The material that was seen being combed into the geisha's hair was actually wax. Wax was usually combed into the hair of most geisha in order to maintain their hairstyles. However, because of its obvious texture, the use of wax for hairstyling proved to be an extremely painful process for almost all geisha.
Steven Spielberg had initially planned to make Memoirs of a Geisha as the follow-up to Saving Private Ryan, bringing along his company DreamWorks. In the meantime, Spielberg's DreamWorks partner David Geffen had tried to persuade him not to take on the project, feeling it was "not good enough for him". Prior to Spielberg's involvement, the film was planned to be shot in Japan and with the Japanese language. By 2002, with Spielberg having postponed production for A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), Minority Report (2002) and Catch Me If You Can (2002), he stepped down from directorial duties to only produce.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
When Mameha declines from attending the Baron's party, Hatsumomo viciously asks "taking care of a little nuisance?". While never fully divulged in the film, the novel goes on to explain that Mameha had gone for an abortion at the Baron's request because he already has children with his wife and doesn't want any more. Mameha actually terminated three pregnancies at the Baron's "request", had she not done it he would have ended their relationship and she would have been on her own. He was on good terms with Mameha so she would never say anything against him.
In neither the novel or film, does Sayuri ever find out what happened to her sister Satsu as she never saw her again after she successfully escaped from the Miyagawa-Cho District and Sayuri failed to do so. The novel provides a few more details into Satsu's possible fate, Satsu is implied to have returned to their village and then run away with the son of a local fisherman.
While the film simply ends with Sayuri and The Chairman sharing a kiss and taking a stroll through the garden after confessing their love, the novel provides a few more details into Sayuri's later life. The Chairman becomes her danna, but moves her into the country so Nobu will not have to see them together. He convinces Mother to release her from the okiya. They live happily for many years, with the Chairman spending a majority of his nights with Sayuri, until she is rumored to have had his illegitimate son, which jeopardizes the future of his business (whether she has truly had his child is never confirmed, though strongly implied). In order to protect his interests (and possibly their child), Sayuri suggests that the Chairman send her to America, where she sets up a small teahouse in New York and lives out the rest of her life in comfort.
The reason Mameha made Sayuri cut her thigh was because it was a ploy to get the doctor aroused and interested enough that he would enter the bidding war for Sayuri's virginity. A true Geisha rarely revealed any skin other than the nape of the neck and a glimpse of wrist, so the revelation of Sayuri's leg is a deliberate enticement.