MEMOIRS OF A
GEISHA - REVIEW
of a Geisha is a novel by Arthur Golden published in 1997. The novel
tells the story of a geisha working in
Kyoto during World War II. It is also the
name of the film based on the book, and directed by Rob Marshall, and
starring Zhang Ziyi.
Memoirs of a Geisha tells the story of a
geisha known as Nitta Sayuri, who lives in New York as a hostess to
Japanese businessmen. Sayuri reveals in the beginning that as a child she
was known as Sakamoto Chiyo, the daughter of a fisherman in a small village
in Japan. Soon after her mother died, she and her older sister are taken to
Gion by one of the more well-off men
in her village. Her sister is sold to a brothel and Chiyo is sold to an
okiya, a house for geisha.
With her unusual blue-grey eyes, Chiyo is to train to become a
geisha, but is constantly antagonized by Hatsumomo,
the top geisha of the Nitta okiya. Hatsumomo
cannot stand competition and recognizes that Chiyo will more than rival her
if she becomes a geisha. Chiyo's life goes from
bad to worse thanks to Hatsumoro and she is reduced to becoming a servant in
the okiya with no hope of becoming a geisha.
A chance encounter with a kind and wealthy man with the title of chairman
(here after known to Chiyo as the Chairman) changes her fortune. Chiyo wins
the eye of the most successful geisha in
Gion, Mameha, who is despised by
Hatsumomo because she outshines her in every aspect and cannot be toppled
because, unlike Hatsumomo, Mameha has earned her independance as a
geisha. She adopts Chiyo as her apprentice and
trains Chiyo to rival Hatsumomo. Her entrance into apprenticeship is marked
by being given a new name: Sayuri.
With her success and her virginity sold, Sayuri not only becomes a highly
successful geisha, she manages to pay off all the
debts that bound her to the Nitta okiya when she was a servant and also is
adopted by the mistress of the okiya. While Sayuri's fortunes seem to soar,
even now that she has finally broken free of Hatsumomo's abuse, everything
collapses in 1942 because of war.
During her time as a geisha before the war, she
encounters the Chairman again, but finds it impossible to get close to him
as she desires. Instead, she finds herself constantly being pushed to be
with Nobu, the Chairman's most trusted friend. It is Nobu that saves Sayuri
from the harsh labour of the war until Gion is able to open again on the
condition that she will allow him to become her patron, despite the fact
that it is the Chairman she desires. Sayuri and Mameha destroy Hatsumomo's
reputation entirely thereafter and Hatsumomo is thrown out of the okiya.
However, it is not until Sayuri's desire to be with the Chairman truly frees
her to pursue her own destiny. When Chairman frees her from the okiya to
become his mistress, she sets up a posh teahouse for Japanese businessmen in
New York so that he may save face in Japan when his daughter is about to
marry a man set to be the Chairman's heir.
"Memoirs of a Geisha" - Controversy
After the novel was published, Arthur Golden was sued by the geisha (Mineko
Iwasaki) with whom he worked, for defamation and breach of contract.
According to the plaintiff, the agreement was supposed to be total anonymity
for the main character of his story. This was because there is a code of
silence among the geisha community and breaking that code is a serious
offence. Once the plaintiff's name was printed in the book, she received
numerous death threats and requests of censure for dishonouring her
profession. However, she opted to sue Golden for putting her name in the
novel. In 2003, Iwasaki and Golden settled out of court for an undisclosed
sum of money, though reports suggested that it was quite substantial.
One issue that Iwasaki never mentioned in public, but became quite clear
after she published her own biography, Geisha of Gion, was how closely
Memoirs of a Geisha mirrored her own life. Indeed, many of the main
characters all corresponded to people she knew or was close to. But such
characters, nasty and bitter as they were in Memoirs of a Geisha, were
actually very kind to her in real life. When Sayuri enters the teahouse, she
is treated like a slave. But in real life, Iwasaki was shown much love and
attention, given a very privileged position. "Hatsumomo" was actually a
sister that she developed a close relationship with, and "Nobu" was a lover
that she cared deeply for. Though she could never have said it in public (a
traditional Japanese woman would not share her inner-most, personal
feelings), Golden's book would have been like reading a warped version of
perfectly happy events in her past. She had opened up to Golden, and he had
broken her confidence to write a one-off bestseller.
A movie adaptation of the novel, produced by Steven Spielberg and
directed by Rob Marshall, is under production as of 2005, and is planned for
release on 23 December 2005. It will star Zhang Ziyi, Ken Watanabe, Gong Li,
Michelle Yeoh, Youki Kudoh and Suzuka Ohgo. Though Watanabe and Kudoh are
Japanese, Zhang, Gong and Yeoh are all, in fact, of Chinese descent. Suzuka
Ohgo plays the younger Sayuri in the film.
The Japanese release of the film is titled "Sayuri" (Latin alphabetic)
Many people were upset that central characters in the movie were not
played by native Japanese actresses; indeed, the lead is played by Chinese
actress Zhang Ziyi. The production crew, however, paid little attention, in
a move that some consider arrogant pan-Asianism, and a refusal to recognize
the diversity of cultures in Asia. In China, however, the casting caused a
stir in the Chinese Internet community where some users were unhappy due to
rising nationalist sentiment, especially because some mistook geisha for
A profession similar to that of a Geisha did exist in imperial China. These
women were refined in art, literature, history and social manners. They
lived in brothels but did not make a living by selling their bodies. Their
job was to entertain male guests with their talents in music, chess,
calligraphy, painting etc., a practice known in Chinese as "selling one's
talents instead of one's body" (賣藝不賣身). However, though highly refined and
famous (involved in innumerable Chinese poems, literature, legends and
folklore), they did not enjoy the status accorded to geisha in Japan. Some
people unfamiliar with this cultural difference misunderstood geisha in a
Some argue that part of the negative reaction was due to the relative rarity
of a famous actress playing a prostitute in native Chinese films due to the
generally conservative values of Chinese society and government pressure,
much less the role of "prostitute" in a country whose actions are often
regarded as slights to China. Even in Hong Kong, Michelle Yeoh was
surrounded by reporters asking her why she accepted the part. However,
others argue that this is a red herring. Cecilia Cheung, for example, played
a prostitute in One Night in Mongkok in 2004. In time, the controversy died
down and the majority of Chinese were not affected. Many people, including
the media, are waiting to see how these three Chinese actors perform in a
film adapted from a novel set in traditional Japan.
Gift for the Chinese Actress from a Geisha
On a recent visit to Tokyo to promote the film, Zhang Ziyi received a
mysterious parcel and letter, revealed to have been sent by an elderly
Japanese woman who had once worked as a geisha. In her letter, the woman
stated that she had been touched by the trailer of the film and expected the
movie to bring back fond memories for her and her friends. Inside the parcel
were several exquisitely worked antique kimonos. Zhang Ziyi was moved to
tears by the gesture and sent the woman an invitation to the film's Japanese
premiere. She also promised to wear one of the kimonos to the event as a
sign of her gratitude (The Star Online).
the film - "Memoirs of a Geisha"
Where to see Geisha
Are Geisha Prostitutes?
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