The mysterious world opened up to readers by Arthur Golden’s international best-seller has been moved to the bigscreen with beauty and tact in “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Long-gestating project may seem like a risky one for an expensive studio venture, given the virtually all-Asian cast, but the combo of the subject’s exoticism, the knockout trio of lead actresses and book-built interest should be enough to lure substantial audiences internationally to what is, underneath it all, a conventional Cinderella story.
On a picture exec producer Steven Spielberg long intended to direct himself, Rob Marshall follows his smash “Chicago” debut with a consummate piece of traditional studio craftsmanship that bespeaks fastidious planning and execution in all departments. From a filmmaking point of view, this is a work that the old Hollywood moguls themselves would have been proud to present.
Despite its refined nature, “Geisha” is mainstream rather than highbrow fare, and reception among the intelligentsia may be negatively affected by the casting of famous Chinese thesps Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li as the three celebrated pre-WWII Japanese geisha, no matter how good they are in the picture. Issue also leaves open the question of audience response in Japan, where the film opens Dec. 10, the day after its domestic release, and where Gong and Zhang are exceptionally popular. There are arguments to be made on both sides, but this is more a fable than a realistic picture, and Asian audiences for decades have accommodated generalized “oriental” casting in Hollywood pics. Outside of Asia, most viewers could care less, and there’s no denying that you don’t want to take your eyes off these actresses for a second.
Hewing faithfully to the general lines, if not all the specifics, of the 1997 novel, script by Robin Swicord boasts a well-carpentered three-act structure framed by sensitive narration in which the mature geisha Sayuri looks back on her life and a world quickly disappearing. In fact, this narration (by Shizuko Hoshi) helps the picture make it over the tricky language hurdle by serving as a graceful English-lingo bridge between a childhood prologue, which is performed in Japanese, and subsequent action in which two sisters from a remote fishing village, their mother dying, are sent by an elderly father to live in bustling Gion district of Kyoto.
Evaluated for suitability at an okiya — or geisha household — by an imperious woman known as Mother (a fabulously crusty Kaori Momoi), the older sister is turned away. Nine-year-old Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo), who has unusual deep gray eyes, is retained to join another girl, Pumpkin, doing menial tasks with the prospect of one day being trained to be a geisha.
Ruling the roost at the cramped compound is Hatsumomo (Gong Li). Exceptionally beautiful, she is also arrogant and tempestuous — a diva among geisha, who gives Chiyo a hard time from the outset. Her one weakness is men, with whom she lustily consorts in ways inappropriate to her highly defined role in life. After Chiyo spots her in a passionate clinch with a man, Mother berates Hatsumomo with, “Do you think a geisha is free to love? Never!”
Perhaps the greatest fascination of Golden’s heavily researched novel is its illumination of classical geisha mores, beginning with the clarification (for Westerns, at least) of whether or not they are prostitutes. While necessarily not as detailed as the novel, the film follows in this line, explaining that geisha are elegant companions and practitioners of traditional arts expert at maintaining agreeable decorum and emotional restraint.
Act one closes with Chiyo’s chance street encounter with a debonair businessman simply called the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), who inspires her to become a geisha.
At the 40-minute mark, action jumps ahead to the mid-1930s. Chiyo (now played by Ziyi Zhang) is 15 and still the house slave when the sophisticated Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), Hatsumomo’s only rival as the most celebrated geisha in Kyoto, makes a financial deal with Mother to school the budding beauty to become a geisha. This alliance officially pits Chiyo against Hatsumomo, who takes Pumpkin as her protege and demands she never speak to her best friend again. Tension in the okiya rise to impossible levels, as Hatsumomo plots to subvert the gorgeous girl she fears will threaten her own popularity.
But Mameha lays a careful plan for her student’s ascent, one that includes Chiyo’s — now renamed Sayuri — debut as a dancer (a triumph) and the auctioning of her virginity (it brings a record bid). All of this brings Sayuri into influential circles that include the Chairman and his business associate Nobu (Koji Yakusho), a facially scarred man who would like to become Sayuri’s danna, or patron. When Sayuri emerges, like a butterfly from a cocoon, as a full-fledged geisha, a showdown with Hatsumomo becomes inevitable.
This middle section is the most absorbing, as it presents the classical geisha world in what turned out to be its final full blossom. The viewer is pulled willingly through Sayuri’s learning process and is provided with a rooting interest in response to Hatsumomo’s treachery. Set pieces, including the dance performance and a visit to a sumo wrestling contest, are arresting, and there is a bracing jolt whenever the action leaves the dark, cloistered interiors to move into the maze-like streets of the hanamachi, or geisha district, superbly recreated in John Myhre’s infinitely detailed production design.
Third act telescopes the impact of World War II down to the disruptions it causes in the central characters’ lives, as the women are dispersed into the countryside for safety. After Japan’s defeat, Sayuri returns from the rice paddies to reunite with Mameha in a Kyoto teeming with American soldiers. Nobu and the Chairman emerge from the rubble to enlist the women’s help in securing a big business deal with the Yanks, which sets the stage for Sayuri’s highly dramatic final reckonings with the two men. As conventionally pleasing as the ending may be, however, pic’s too-pat version of it leaves unanswered many questions that are dealt with in the novel with a bittersweet embrace of reality.
While scarcely a meditative work such as a Japanese director might have made on the subject, “Geisha” is, fortunately, a much calmer movie than “Chicago,” one with steady dramatic focus and a confident narrative rhythm. The rules and formality of the world under scrutiny may have been contagious to the filmmakers, as there is a welcome sense of composure and orderliness to the enterprise that avoids gimmickry and trendiness.
Craft contributions are of a very high order. Right down to the exterior light, the film is convincing in its physical details despite the fact it was mostly shot in California, on Sony soundstages in Culver City and on locations throughout the state (a few Japanese locales were used as well). Colleen Atwood’s dazzling costumes, particularly the ornate kimono, play an unusually central visual role, as do the makeup and hairstyles. John Williams’ excellent score is dominated by Japanese instrumentations, abetted by Western-style thematic work soulfully played by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman.
As for the actresses, coached to speak English with Japanese accents, the fact is there are no Japanese female stars at the moment with anything approaching the charisma, stature and international celebrity of Zhang, Gong and Yeoh. In the leading role, Zhang is convincing and mesmerizingly beautiful, even if there is an intangible missing from her dialogue delivery in English that gives her somewhat less impact here than she had in her virtuoso performance in Wong Kar-wai’s recent “2046.”
Gong rightly pulls out all the stops as the flamboyant geisha queen desperate to stay on her throne, giving her perf a delicious melodramatic spin that puts one in mind of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford in their primes. Comparatively benefiting from her complete fluency in English, Yeoh excels, endowing Mameha with a cool intelligence th
at masks the protracted uncertainty of her all-or-nothing bet on Sayuri’s future.
Japanese thesp Kudoh makes for a wonderful Pumpkin, coming into her own in the third act.
The Japanese actors, including Watanabe as the reserved Chairman who looms distantly but decisively over Sayuri’s life, Yakusho as her restrained admirer and Japanese-American Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as an opportunistic industrialist, are solid in roles that are strictly one-dimensional compared to those of the women.
A thoughtful, old-fashioned touch in the end credits matches the performers’ names with their images.