Saturday, December 31, 2005

Popcorn time: Memoirs of a Geisha

(like the new movie headline? ;) ;) )

Just saw the film adaptation of one of my favorite novels, Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha , which I enjoyed, although I found it very helpful to have read the book first. I saw it with three girlfriends, none of which had read the novel, so I got some good feedback from them about what they wish they would have known, or questions they had, about the film after they saw it. So this is a three parter: a synopsis, the review, and then the FAQs.

Synopsis: Young Chiyo and her sister, Satsu, are sold by their parents to become geishas in the Japanese city of Gion, to geishas what Broadway is to singers and dancers. The sisters are sure they will be housed together, but the geisha house (or okiya ) only take Chiyo, while her sister is taken to another part of town (we discover later that she has been sold as prostitute). Chiyo meets Mother and Auntie, who run the house, and she is enlisted as a servant with another girl, Pumpkin, until she is old enough to attend Geisha classes and begin her training. As Geisha means "artist", these classes consist of dance practice, training in traditional Japanese instruments, and tea ceremony (these are described in detail in the novel but are brushed over quickly in the film). Chiyo manages to fall out of favor with Mother, however, when she tries to escape with her sister and ruins a kimono that belongs to Mameha, the greatest geisha in Gion, at the urging of Chiyo's enemy in the house, Hatsumomo. Hatsumomo is one of Gion's best geisha, unendingly jealous of Mameha, and hates Chiyo because she sees in her a potential rival, so she does everything in her power to ruin the young girl's future. As a maid, Chiyo begins to despair of her life after her training is ended until she meets the chairman (Ken Wanatabe), who shows her kindness and treats her with respect. She falls instantly in love and vows to one day become a geisha so she can be around him. Unexpectedly, Mameha takes Chiyo under her wing, trains her as a geisha, and gives her the new name Sayuri. As Sayuri, she becomes the top geisha in Gion, much to the displeasure of Hatsumomo, who eventually goes mad after setting a fire in the okiya and leaves the family. The rest of the film charts Sayuri's attempts to capture the chairman; the loss of her virginity to the highest bidder; the harsh treatment she endures at the hands of men, who think her nothing more than a prostitute, and other geisha; and the coming and aftermath of World War II and the effect it has on geisha culture and Sayuri's life. I'm not going to give away the ending, but that's a brief sketch.

Review: I really enjoyed this film, especially the cinematography, scenery, costumes (by Colleen Atwood, who also designed for Chicago ), and the wonderful score by John Williams that features Itzhak Perlman on the violin and Yo-Yo Ma on the cello. It's simply divine to listen to (and has been nominated for a Golden Globe). The pacing is good (at times, too good), and the acting excellent, especially in Ken Wanatabe, Zizi Zhang (who plays adult Chiyo/Sayuri), and Michelle Yeoh, who plays Hatsumomo. The film captures the heart and spirit of the novel wonderfully without too much attention to following Golden's dense plot like a BBC serial. Enjoyable, adult romance which I found quite satisfying. Some of the actors' accents, however, are difficult to understand, so some knowledge of the story is helpful in deciphering what's happening.

1. Why are Chiyo and Satsu sold? The girls are sold because their mother is dying and their father is in his 60s and is a fisherman. He has no sons, and with his wife's death imminent, he is worried about how to provide for the girls, since he does not see himself living much longer than his wife. Selling the girls will not only give him some money to provide for his wife's burial, but will also enable to the girls to get some sort of education and have skills to make a living upon. (He probably did not picture Satsu's life as a prostitute...he probably thought they'd both be sold into geisha houses and trained.) This did actually happen to girls in the countryside of Japan in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

2. What happens to Satsu? she ends up becoming a prostitute and does eventually escape Gion. We aren't sure what happens to her after that.

3. What's a geisha's debt? How is it acquired? An apprentice geisha, before she makes her debut, already owes the ohiya a lot of money--the money it cost to acquire her, money for her lessons, clothes, food, doctor's visits, etc. Since chiyo has broken her arm and damaged an expensive kimono, she is more in debt that most. That is why Mameha makes the deal with Mother about her fees. There's no way Mother, who is very stingy, would have permitted the girl to acquire more debt with the uncertainy of her future earnings and ability to pay it off.

4. What's mizuage? a mizuage was a way of "selling" an apprentice geisha's virginity--it was also a way to make a lot of money for the geisha and pay down her debts. In the film, Chiyo's mizuage sets a record for being the highest ever, with Dr. Crab finally taking the honors. It was considered a great honor in some circles of men to "deflower" a virgin girl and was very ceremonialized in its actions. The boxes that Mameha has Chiyo present to Nobu, the Baron, and Dr. Crab are ekubo cakes, which symbolize that a girl is ready for her mizuage and that she is inviting these men to "bid" for it. The bidding was done through a third party.

5. What exactly is a geisha? First and foremost, they are not prostitutes. As stated above, geisha means "artist", and so the women were trained as entertainers (like lounge singers today, or something). They knew the ancient arts of dance and music, as well as tea ceremony, and were taught how to conduct gracious conversation and keep things pleasant at a party. For men to hire geisha to entertain a party was a display of wealth and taste, especially if they were top geisha, like Mameha and Sayuri. There were some sexual relations involved--the Baron is Mameha's danna but sex was not the top priority. Not all parties were dance and tea ceremony, however; the island party at the end of the film demonstrates a "coarser" type of event.

6. What's a danna? a danna is a geisha's patron. He pays for her apartment, lesson fees, and other things she may need. He also gives her gifts, such as kimono, and other things. Sex is involved, usually, but that's not the primary focus. A geisha is essentially a high-class mistress when she has a danna , and these men usually provided the financial independence necessary for geisha to move out of their okiyas and set up their own housekeeping, like Mameha does in the film. In the novel, Sayuri also has a danna , a general.

7. Why does Chiyo change her name? It's part of the right of passage of becoming a geisha, much like people taking names at Confirmation, or things like that. It demonstrates that she is a full-fledged geisha now. Usually the name was derived from their big sister's name, to help her 'establish' herself, but in Sayuri's case all the names with part of Mameha's were considered "inauspicious" (geisha are very superstitious), so her name is different.

8. How do you know all this? :-D I've read a lot! I've read the novel several times, but also the book Geisha, a Life by Mineko Iwasaki, whose life was the inspiration for Golden's novel and who Golden himself interviewed several times in the course of writing. She talks very candidly about her life as a geisha and the geisha culture, and I found it very interesting and educational. I highly recommend it if you're interested in this culture.

1 comment:

Jessy said...

Oh my Goodness, Memoirs of a Geisha is one of my favourite books!

It wont open in Australia until Jan 19, I think. I am so anxious to see it and your little review made me really excited :) I'm really glad that you enjoyed it. I wonder how different the movie will be from the book.