Orient expression

'Memoirs' recalls rich Japanese tradition for American auds

“In Japanese culture we don’t say what we feel directly,” says Noriko Watanabe, makeup designer on Rob Marshall’s “Memoirs of a Geisha.” “Modesty and politeness are very much appreciated in society. A somewhat poemlike way of passing opinion shows how intelligent a person is. The geisha world is especially like that.” Watanabe, along with the rest of “Geisha’s” creative team, including “Chicago” costume designer Colleen Atwood and production designer John Myhre, faced the challenge of bringing to life an expressive story within a place where the very act of expression is controlled.

“It was important that we maintained respect for the ancient tradition while making the look acceptable to the Western eye,” says Watanabe. “We had to make it our own and at the same time keep the principles of authenticity and meaning in traditional makeup. It was a delicate balance.”

“We created an atmospheric world with lighting and sets and costumes that made you feel you were in the okiya,” says Atwood. “And that made you feel claustrophobic yourself. These women are artists beyond belief and very revered in Japan, but we were telling a story that is so subtle to the eye on film that you could miss a lot, so we also had to exaggerate a little.”

Adjustments had to be made in fashioning the delicate kimonos worn in the film. “The process of making the real geisha kimonos is a four- or five-step process and it takes over a year to make one,” Atwood adds. “We obviously couldn’t do that ourselves, but we tried to emulate it with different techniques. We changed the length of the kimono, and the shape of the obi (the sash worn around the waist) to make it more theatrical and dramatic. The main characters have a version of an obi that is exaggerated because when we did our tests there was (a) feeling that we wanted to have more of a taller, reedlike silhouette.”

Rebuilding Japan

John Myhre faced the daunting task of creating the film’s setting in prewar Japan. While at first he planned to shoot primarily in Japan, the decision was eventually made to go local, so local that Yamashiro restaurant in L.A. was used to depict the geisha school, and a town (modeled after Kyoto) was built in Thousand Oaks, complete with a 250-foot-long river to carry the cherry blossoms on the water.

“When we went to Japan, we found that there was no area of city that was perfectly preserved to the 1930s, and we needed such incredible control,” explains Myhre. “Monday would need to be spring and Wednesday would need to be fall.

“A part of my goal was to visually bring in the same sort of wonder that I had reading Arthur Golden’s book,” Myhre adds. “I wanted to find a way of letting audiences feel like they had been transported to another place, so we immediately decided that we’d use anything unusual to our eyes.”

Myhre included findings from his travels to Japan, like water bells shaped to look like flowers, which were used in a sequence where rain is falling from a rooftop. “Anytime I saw a detail that was interesting to me, from the shape of a teapot to a beautiful cedar plank or a pattern I hadn’t seen before, I grabbed it,” he says.

Myhre also had a little help from the source. He and his team consulted Golden himself on the locations he imagined while writing the book. “He told me about all of his secret little places. He’d say, ‘Take a left at the third teahouse and then go two little streets and take a right, and if there are three stores in a row that sell ceramics you’re in the right place,'” says Myhre. “I felt like the luckiest guy in the world.”

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