Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Memoirs of a Geisha

“My world is as forbidden as it is fragile; without its mysteries, it cannot survive.”--Sayuri

Thus, began our journey on the silver screen into the world and mystique of the Geisha, a world that is so alien to the West that Director Rob Marshall wants us to view and understand in his epic 2 hours and 41 minutes of film that was based on Arthur Golden’s 1997 Bestselling Novel “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

To be a Geisha is not easy. To be one, you have to cast your past away and live in a world that is far different from the ordinary; years of rigorous training in centuries- old traditions of voice, dance and music as well as the obsession of perfecting an art that is to entertain and please men.

A Geisha is neither a courtesan nor a prostitute nor do they harbor any illusion of becoming the wife of the men that they have met along the way. Instead they are a part of a culture that is hard to fathom in the eyes of the western world and is a moving work of art through their learned and coordinated movements; from the flick of their fingers to the tilting of their heads down to the enigmatic smiles and graceful feather-like strides. Their cultured singing voices and their samisen- playing skills all added to its glamour and mystique to the casual observer.

Their grace and elegance in the ancient Japanese tradition of Tea Ceremony is worth noting. It is poetry in motion, so to speak. Neither a single movie nor a hundred books can capture the real essence of the mystical and legendary world of the Geisha.

Director Robert Marshall (Chicago) can only capture bits and pieces of it but thanks to his filmmaking skills and talent, he was able to bring to the widescreen the book’s visual richness and dramatic story- telling that conveys beauty, romance and sadness to the viewer.

The movie tells the story of young Chiyo’s journey from her impoverished life in the fishing village into a whole new world that is the Gion District of Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital until her rise to the top of the Geisha-dom in the 1930s.Chiyo (played by Suzuka Ohgo/ later named Sayuri) was brought to the Geisha house by her father and found herself a virtual slave by the dominating “Mother” (Kaori Momoi) and became the recipient of the house’s “Star” Geisha Hatsumomo’s (Gong Li) ill- treatment who quickly realized the young girl as a potential threat that will one day steal her throne.

Chiyo simply turned the other cheek and prefer to suffer in silence rather than fight back against Hatsumomo’s atrocities towards her until a stranger (Ken Watanabe- The Chairman) spotted her crying on a bridge offered his handkerchief to wipe away her tears and even bought her some cold refreshment to lift her sagging morale and waning spirits, an act of kindness which the young girl had never experienced before that subsequently left a lasting impression on her as she vowed to repay the kind- hearted Chairman in the only way that she is capable of- by becoming a Geisha herself.

Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang), now a grown up with her beautiful expressive eyes and stunning beauty and well –schooled by the elegant Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), Hatsumomo’s rival in the fine arts of the profession, have turned the tables on the now aging Hatsumomo where finally she beat her in her own game.

The movie with its talented casts of actors and performers have offered us juts a glimpse of the secret world of the Geisha that is once forbidden from the prying eyes of outsiders.

Of course the film had its drawbacks and flaws but all in all Marshall came up with a film that is gorgeous to see, mysterious yet elegant. A visual feast that is hypnotic likened to the Chrysanthemums slowly falling on the ground.

The experience can be summed up in Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics in the Broadway musical, “Pacific Overtures”---

“We sit inside the screens and contemplate the view that’s painted on the screens, more beautiful than true…”

Suggested Readings:

Memoirs of a Geisha- Arthur Golden
Geisha- Liza Dalby
Geisha: A Living Tradition- Kyoko Aihara
‘Geisha: Women of Japan’s Flower and Willow World’- Tina Skinner and Mary L. Martin
‘Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha Who Bewitched the West’-Lesley

*Posted in Bill Blahs March 6, 2006

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