Monday, 26 May 2014


“Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are.” - Arthur Golden

Rob Marshall’s 2005 film Memoirs of a Geisha was rather controversial when it was first released. It is the screen adaptation of Arthur Golden’s beautiful novel, and like other literary works that has been translated onto the silver screen, it has its shortcomings. However, the plethora of criticism does not all relate to the screen adaptation per se.

The film was a very controversial one on several other grounds: First, many Asian viewers have been offended by the casting – three Chinese actors playing Japanese has sparked quite a debate about liberties taken with the film. Some Japanese reviewers have commented on how superficially the film deals with a very complex social and cultural tradition, that of the geisha. The issue of language, accent and unconvincing “japaneseness” of the cast keeps cropping up in discussions. The American director, it was said, has opted for a caricature vision of the Orient… Having read the novel and enjoyed it, being aware of the controversy surrounding the film, I was rather diffident in watching it. However, I was won over once I viewed it and must say that I enjoyed the experience thoroughly, despite its flaws.

Firstly, the film has some stunning cinematography and the colour/light elements within each shot are handled with mastery. Then, the music score by John Williams is luscious and complements the atmosphere of the film exceptionally well, without being obtrusive. I had no problem with the casting as remarkably powerful performances are given by not only the leads, but also the supporting cast. The recreation of WWII circum-bellum Japan is executed well and the sets and costumes look authentic. However, I must admit that I am watching it through Western eyes…

The plot of the movie revolves around a geisha. It is 1929 and an impoverished nine-year-old girl, called Chiyo, from a fishing village is sold to a geisha house in Kyoto’s Gion district and subjected to cruel treatment by the head geisha Hatsumomo. Her stunning beauty attracts the vindictive jealousy of Hatsumomo, until she is rescued by and taken under the wing of Hatsumomo’s bitter rival, Mameha. Under Mameha’s mentorship, Chiyo becomes the geisha named Sayuri, trained in all the artistic and social skills a geisha must master in order to become successful. Sayuri becomes a renowned geisha and enters a society of wealth, privilege, and political intrigue. As World War II looms ahead, Japan and the geisha’s world are inescapably changed.

Whatever one may think, the movie is not about sex and bloody violence. It is a psychological study of women and their problems that many men may find hard to relate to or in the other extreme it may be a revelation to many men. The film is about deceit, treachery and rivalries as much as it is about a little girl who gets sold into bondage by her poor family. It is also about a lifelong search for love in a society in which people are restrained and will not be open about their feelings for each other.

My criticisms related to the rather ad hoc way in which language is used in the film. Japanese is used in the first few minutes and switching on the subtitles on the DVD one sees the rather cryptic message: “Man talks in Japanese” – as if we did not know! When English is subsequently used, the occasional introduction of Japanese dialogue or isolated words puts the action in context, presumably, but one is rather bewildered. I would have preferred either completely Japanese dialogue with subtitles or completely English dialogue. At least English subtitles when the dialogue turned to Japanese would have been good.

The film has been dubbed “a women’s movie”. I beg to differ, as it held my interest throughout, even though at the core of the plot is a love story. There are interesting power struggles depicted and the atmosphere of the life of a geisha has been captured well. I would recommend that this film be seen, despite its shortcomings.

1 comment:

  1. I loved both the book and film for different reasons... Your review of the movie is good and like you I watched it through Western eyes.