Japan’s rarefied geisha culture is kookily crossed with Broadway musicals in “Lady Maiko,” Masayuki Suo’s variation on “My Fair Lady.” Gorgeously appointed and exuberantly choreographed, this crowded ensemble drama is a visual treat that, at well over two hours, needs a romantic spark to give it stronger dramatic momentum. Audiences aware of what a tacky knockoff “Memoirs of a Geisha” was may well appreciate the production’s dedication to authenticity, but it doesn’t entertain on the level of Suo’s “Shall We Dance,” or boast the zany humor of “Maiko Haaaan!!!” Still, Suo’s rep and the fascinating subject matter should ensure a decent run in select Asian markets.
The ancient, masonic world of geishas, sometimes referred to as Hanamachi (Flower Street), is almost synonymous with Kyoto, a city proud of its artistic heritage and exclusion of non-locals. However, the film reveals that since the profession’s heyday, “maiko” (geisha-in-training) were sold into service by poor backwater families. This underscores Suo’s “makeover” motif, the idea that anyone who tries hard enough to adapt to an environment deserves acceptance.
The decline of the profession is brought home in the opening scene, when two clients brag that maiko are no different from teen idols, so even part-timers will do. Yet, Shimohachiken, a fusty old quarter of Kyoto, still upholds the tradition that every district must have at least one maiko. This prevents Bansuraku Teahouse’s only maiko, Momoharu (Tomoko Tabata, “Cowards Who Looked to the Sky”), from attaining geisha status, despite the fact that she’s nearing 30.
But when country girl Haruko (Mone Kamishiraishi) comes to Bansuraku to apprentice as a maiko, owner Chiharu (Sumiko Fuji) turns her down for having no personal references. Incidentally, her hybrid north-south accent catches the attention of a client, linguistics professor “Roach” Kyono (Hiroki Hasegawa, “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?”), who makes a bet with old patron Kitano (Ittoku Kishibe) that in six months, he’ll teach Haruko to be fluent in Kyoto-ben, the geisha lingo that sounds “as gentle as the whispering breeze.”
Chiharu reluctantly agrees to groom Haruko. Her training, which begins with cleaning the toilet, offers a window into the refined art of being a geisha, which includes everything from dancing and playing instruments to maintaining proper poise and displaying profuse courtesy (“In our days, we even bowed to telegraph poles,” an elderly geisha proudly intones). These arcane rituals alternate with Kyono’s high-tech enunciation drills, which kick off with a novel Kyoto-ben pastiche of “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” However, these coaching scenes may seem dull for non-Japanese, for whom the dialects will sound like gobbledygook.
The dramedy employs the popular Japanese formula of a dweeb mastering an art form through gut-busting effort (a genre Suo popularized through “Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t”). Instead of a conventional climax with a contest, however, the real turning point occurs two-thirds into the film, when Haruko suddenly crumbles under the weight of her mentors’ high expectations, a crisis that sparks various diverse and enlightening exchanges about the hardships and deprivations that geishas experience.
With distaff roles spanning four generations, the film shows the geishas at various stages of maturity. An embodiment of elegance and authority, Fuji (formerly Junko Fuji, mother of Shinobu Terajima) can shift from severe to gentle with one subtle expression; Suo pays homage to the actress’ legendary image in the “Peony Gambler” series, and makes her the women’s emotional pillar. Suo’s wife and muse, Kusakari, strikes her usual snow-queen pose, but allows some passion to seep through her surface aloofness. Tabata speaks and carries herself convincingly as a Kyoto native, but hers is a thinly drawn character with little personal story or memorable interaction with others.
Doe-eyed 16-year-old Kamishiraishi, scouted from the “Toho Cinderella Contest,” easily conveys a rookie’s eagerness when learning the ropes; her maiko debut is a transformation as magical as Cinderella’s. Presenting Kyono as a dorky bookworm (utterly different from Rex Harrison’s worldly gentleman), Suo’s screenplay willfully evades any romantic arc between mentor and pupil, even when Haruko’s friendship with Kyono’s assistant Shuhei (Gaku Hamada) provides some interesting love-triangle prospects.
As musicals go, “Lady Maiko” boasts a playful style that allows traditional Japanese dances to segue into Broadway-style musical numbers, often done in glorious ’70s style; the pic references highlights from “My Fair Lady” and even includes the odd Latin dance step. Though it’s a nice concept, some of these performances appear to have been staged merely to show off Kusakari’s ballet background, and cutting them could tighten the film’s pacing. Craft contributions are aces, the richly costumed and decorated production presenting Kyoto’s landscaped gardens, seasonal scenery and architecture to most pleasing effect.