Review: Films Set In Japan – ‘Memoirs Of A Geisha’ (2005)

Get beyond the whole Chinese actresses portraying Japanese geisha debacle and what you see in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ (called ‘Sayuri’ in Japan) is a beautiful, colourful, gorgeous film showing the spirit of this one girl as she battles against the odds. That may sound cliched and it probably is but I like that kind of film as it requires less thinking on my part! Personally, I didn’t care that most of the actresses weren’t Japanese.

They were trained in the art of being a geisha which would no doubt have been the same if local talent was cast. Its a dying art and I don’t expect they know much better just because they are the same nationality. Besides, Chinese can act better and that is a fact so get over it! They were chosen for ability rather but I can understand why Japanese people get upset about a foreigner portraying one of their own. Be that as it may, people often portray different nationalities in the Western world.

I was eagerly anticipating the film release at the end of 2005 having read Arthur Golden’s book during my break from Japan earlier that same year. Unlike the other ‘films set in Japan’ reviewed on here, ‘Memoirs…’ is very high profile so the story is already known to most. Basically, impoverished nine year old girl Chiyo is sold to a geisha house in Kyoto’s Gion district and struggles with her new family and new life, particularly the head geisha Hatsumomo who is jealous of her beauty. Hatsumomo’s rival Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) becomes Chiyo’s new mentor and renames her Sayuri where she goes on to master the artistic and social skills which are all part of a geisha’s appeal. As WWII looms the story takes a turn which would forever change the world of geisha.

As someone who is intrigued by geisha and read a fair few books about them I still don’t really understand or see their charm like so many others do but thats probably just down to a difference in culture. I have seen ‘Memoirs….’ quite a few times and think the stars of the show are not Ken Watanabe (The Chairman), Ziyi Zhang (Sayuri) or Michelle Yeoh (who I prefer in her more combat roles especially the James Bond film ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’) but Gong Li as Hatsumomo who delivers a master performance as the wicked witch of this Cinderella type story.

The young Chiyo features for the first hour and that is the part of the story I like the most as it shows her uphill battle which the young Suzuka Ohgo performs very well. My enduring image of the movie is the one of Chiyo running through the many torii gates after she’d just met The Chairman. Together with John Williams’ superb score this is a beautiful, visually stunning moment which changes her life forever. (Watch it here.) Having said that, is it only me who thinks there’s something wrong with the idea that The Chairman set his sights on a young girl and then waits until she grows up before getting her!

Most of the movie was filmed on a specially-built village in Los Angeles but there were a few scenes made in Japan for real and those were done at a few temples in and around Kyoto. At 145 minutes the film is too long for my liking (even though I was enjoying it a lot I do recall getting restless in my seat after two hours when I saw it at the cinema) and having the actors all speaking English makes no sense. Subtitles should have been used but then I guess far fewer people would have bothered to go and watch it. Apart from that I really enjoyed it.


Tokyo Fox Rating 8/10

About tokyofox

A Leicester City fan teaching English in Japan
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6 Responses to Review: Films Set In Japan – ‘Memoirs Of A Geisha’ (2005)

  1. One might be more inclined to see a Scorsese flick as opposed to a movie made by some Joe Schmoe director that nobody has ever heard of. The area that houses the Geisha House location however is in the process of being rebuilt and perhaps a beach city location may have made more sense but Moore and Malin have a different view.

  2. Pingback: Kansai Trip 2011 Pt II: Memoirs Of A Geisha Filming Locations | Tokyo Fox (東京狐)

  3. Pingback: Kansai Trip 2011 Pt I: Fushimi-Inari Taisha | Tokyo Fox (東京狐)

  4. business says:

    Another name for geisha used in Japan is geiko which is usually used to refer to geisha from Western Japan including Kyoto..Apprentice geisha are called or literally dance child or hangyoku half-jewel meaning that they are paid half the wage of a full geisha or by the more generic term o-shaku literally one who pours alcohol . However those who do go through the maiko stage can enjoy more prestige later in their professional lives..The only modern hangyoku that can apprentice before the age of eighteen are in . The early shikomi servant and minarai watching apprentice stages of geisha training lasted years which is significantly longer than in contemporary times..It is still said that geisha inhabit a separate reality which they call the kary kai or the flower and willow world. Before the courtesans were the colorful flowers and the geisha the because of their subtlety strength and grace.

  5. Pingback: Kyoto Filming Locations: Memoirs Of A Geisha | Beyond The Movies

  6. Susu says:

    This is the most unfairly maligned film of the year. Some critics took it upon themselves to be the defenders of Japanese culture (without fully researching their arguments) and, in the process, betrayed their own racism. “The film is inauthentic because the actresses do not wear matronly bouffants,” one said. Riiiiiight. Matronly bouffants are a Western stereotype! But in any case, some of them do and some don’t! THAT’S authenticity. I guess critics wouldn’t know that writing reviews without seeing the film or walking out long before it’s over (some, such as Jeff Wells, do).

    Anyway, it’s a fantastic film and more than deserving of multiple Academy award nominations – which it may not get thanks to the fact that so many people decided they wanted to use the film as the sacrificial lamb for a half-baked debate about international politics, rather consider that pan-Asian casting for major roles is NOTHING new (it’s true of House of Flying Daggers, The Joy Luck Club and even Crouching Tiger) and that this film’s production might represent international cooperation at its best.

    Look out for Gong Li and Youki Kudoh in RICHLY developed supporting roles. The supporting males, while obviously not as well developed since they spend less time in the geisha quarters, still give incredible performances. Ken Watanabe was excellent, but I particularly enjoyed the performance of the actor playing Nobu. Oprah is right about the sets and costumes; they (amongst other things) make you want to savor every moment of the film. Some people have argued that the brilliant colors make it seem like some sort of Orientalist fantasy. Truth is that this would only be the case if we saw a departure from a more sedate West to a flamboyant East; instead, the film opens in a rather sedate part of Japan and then takes us to the more colorful geisha district (which introduces this fascinating paradox of great suffering in a milieu of tremendous beauty). We know from Chicago that it’s simply Rob Marshall’s aesthetic to make everything the height of beauty, even if it’s a slum. God forbid ENTERTAINMENT CIRCLES should be presented as visually spectacular! The film is by turns funny, moving and, yes, thrilling. Gasps in the audience for the film’s third act gave way to sniffles. Ziyi Zhang really managed any language difficulties well; her face has this ripple effect when she’s emoting. It’s stunning to behold. If I were voting for the Oscars, I’d definitely give her a nomination at the very least. And homegirl can dance, too! Her performance and the film itself are not boring at all; audience members laughed when she was trying to be funny and sighed when she was suffering. IMO, too much happens in the film for it to get boring; there’s a strong balance between the rivalries, the details about geisha entertainment and the romance. In the final scene, it all comes full circle. I won’t tell you how. See for yourself.

    My #1 film of the year. Brokeback Mountain, Chronicles of Narnia, Howl’s Moving Castle, King Kong and Grizzly Man aren’t far behind.

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