Geisha: Lost in translation

Pic's grosses across most of Asian continent anemic

For a lavish historical epic set in Japan, “Memoirs of a Geisha” hasn’t found the Japanese market to be very hospitable.

“Geisha” has grossed roughly $13.2 million in Japan since bowing day-and-date with the U.S. opening on Dec. 10. The big-budget adaptation of Arthur Golden’s bestselling novel was released on a wide 300-plus prints in Japan with high hopes.

In comparison, “The Last Samurai,” which teamed Tom Cruise with Ken Watanabe, grossed $118 million in Japan two years ago, topping the territory’s 2004 charts.

Industry insiders in Japan had hoped that “Geisha” would top $35 million.

Spyglass, which co-financed the $85 million pic with Sony and DreamWorks, has been handling “Geisha” overseas.

International distribution has been assigned to a patchwork of companies. In Japan, it was handled by Shochiku on behalf of Buena Vista Intl. BVI handled local marketing, including an extensive junket early last year.

The anemic perf in Japan might be attributed, in part, to the project’s lack of big Japanese leads. (Pic’s cast includes Chinese stars Ziyi Zhang and Li Gong, as well as the Hong Kong action icon Michelle Yeoh.)

Adding some controversy to the mix: Chinese censors have purportedly been concerned over seeing their best-known thesps playing Japanese courtesans. Relations between China and Japan are often rocky, stretching back to resentment over Japanese occupation from 1937 to 1945.

The pic’s six Oscar noms have not helped “Geisha” much: All were in tech categories.

“Geisha” opened at the top of the box office charts in other Asian markets, including Hong Kong and Taiwan, but the grosses across the continent were not impressive.

Asian coin has accounted for only about $24 million of “Geisha’s” worldwide cume. South Korea took in roughly $6.3 million; Singapore and Taiwan have managed about $1 million each.

All told, the epic has passed $85 million overseas and will probably gross $20 million more — doubling the domestic gross.

(Patrick Frater in Hong Kong and Mark Schilling in Tokyo contributed to this report.)