An oft-misunderstood Japanese tradition gets a sympathetic closeup in Miyuki Sohara’s “Hannari Geisha Modern,” providing rare access to contemporary Kyoto geisha performers, or geiko. Interviews with octogenarian veterans, young apprentices and craftsmen testify to the enormous dedication the culture requires, and Miyuki’s concern over its decline reads clearly. Unfortunately, the film never coheres, consumed with the details of geisha life without fully explaining its importance. Docu, which played Stateside theaters in 2006, begins a limited L.A. run June 26.
Documenting the geiko as they struggle to modernize, Miyuki shows them setting up websites and staging theatrical performances for the public. Filmed in extremely long, static shots (and supplemented by footage of rehearsals with an exacting choreographer), these performances are quite beautiful — as complex and subtle as ballet. But when the geiko are seen in their traditional roles as private entertainers, the anachronisms are glaring. Why should such talented artists have to spend several hours per night sitting uncomfortably and serving beer to strange gentlemen? The geiko and their clients both bemoan the loss of the old ways, but it’s hard to see why this particular one couldn’t stand some revision.