Memoirs of a Geisha


Memoirs of a Geisha Review

The only thing which director Rob Marshall doesn't throw into Memoirs of a Geisha is a torch song in which the heroines can lament their sad fates; it might have been an improvement if he had. Adapted from Arthur Golden's 1997 bestselling novel, the film is about Sayuri, a young girl in pre-war Japan sold into servitude at a Kyoto okiya, or geisha house. Although interesting as drama, the book was beloved for its depiction of this long-gone culture's intricate rituals, and the grueling training and subterfuge which the geisha indulged in to succeed. Since much of that material is better suited for the page than the screen, the film blows up the book's more melodramatic moments (and there were plenty of them) into a cliched soap opera of thwarted love, backstabbing and really pretty outfits.

Marshall gives the film, especially its early scenes where Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) gets schooled in the hard-knock ways of the okiya, a goodly amount of sound and fury that has more than a hint of Spielberg to it (the original director of the project, he stayed on as producer). Having one of the world's most photogenic period settings, Marshall makes all that he can of it, and the results are astonishing. This is a film of fluttering cherry blossoms and dark alleyways lit by paper lanterns, where all houses have their own deftly-maintained garden and everyone is dressed to the nines. The problem is that no amount of amped-up drama or pretty window-dressing can make up for the fact that the phenomenally talented cast has been stuck with hackneyed dialogue to deliver in English - a first language for none of them.

Given that the filmmakers had already made the controversial decision to cast non-Japanese actors in key roles (apparently with the idea that Asian is Asian), wouldn't it have made sense to cast Asian-Americans with a greater facility for English? Forcing such graceful actresses as Zhang and Michelle Yeoh - as the older geisha Mameha, who takes Sayuri under her wing - into the clumsy circumlocutions of English seems practically an insult. That's not to say that the cast doesn't work some magic with the material at hand. Zhang and Yeoh have a warm and sisterly chemistry, used to better effect in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and their martial arts skills give them a natural grace that makes them all the more believable as the quietly regal geishas, the "artists of the floating world" as Sayuri calls them. Also doing what they can are the great Ken Watanabe and Koji Yakusho (Cure), whose characters are both vying for Sayuri's hand - they play patently ludicrous lines with undeserved dedication and emotion. Faring less well is Gong Li, whose preternatural beauty and quiet skill is here twisted into a caricature of jealous hatred and decadent self-destruction. Playing another older geisha, Hatsumomo rival to Mameha, she does everything within her power to destroy Sanyuri. Although it's meant to be seen in epic scale, the bitter little contest is more like something out of a Joan Collins novel, or Showgirls. All of them, from Zhang to Watanabe and Li, should be above this.

Unfortunately, this is the film's problem: Although the impressive visual scope is that of a grand studio melodrama, the small-scale story of love and betrayal seems hardly appropriate to the treatment. The oversize grandiosity of the film's look also goes against the grain of the book, a far less romantic treatment. Rightly fascinated by the minutely detailed bylaws of the geishas' universe, Golden was more journalistic than celebratory. The filmmakers, however, produced a work of unreflective Japanese kitsch on a level with The Last Samurai. When Americans show up, as part of the occupying army, they are presented as uncouth barbarians who demolished the delicate floating world of Sanyuri, Hatsumomo, and Mameha. While an air of remorse is perhaps the right tone for the death of any subculture, the world of the film is so narrow that pre-occupation Japan looks like a feudal Disneyland, where everybody knew their place and the cherry blossoms were always falling. It's hard to say which is more troubling, the fact that the filmmakers present this fantasy as truth, or the fact that they seem to pine so much for it.

Remember this one?

Memoirs of a Geisha

Facts and Figures

Run time: 145 mins

In Theaters: Friday 23rd December 2005

Box Office USA: $57.0M

Box Office Worldwide: $162.2M

Budget: $85M

Distributed by: Sony Pictures

Production compaines: DreamWorks SKG, Spyglass Entertainment, Columbia Pictures Corporation, Red Wagon Productions

Reviews 2 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 35%
Fresh: 56 Rotten: 102

IMDB: 7.3 / 10

Cast & Crew


Starring: Zhang Ziyi as Sayuri, as Hatsumomo, as Pumpkin, as Auntie, Suzuka Ohgo as Chiyo, as The Chairman, as Mameha, Navia Nguyen as Izuko, as Nobu, as Mother, Zoe Weizenbaum as Young Pumpkin, as The Baron, as The General, as Dr. Crab, as Lieutenant Hutchins, as Colonel Derricks, as Satsu, as Koichi, as Tanaka, Elizabeth Sung as Sakamoto's Wife