Review: Films Set In Japan – ‘Memoirs Of A Geisha’ (2005)

Get beyond the whole Chinese actresses portraying Japanese geisha debacle and what you see in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ (called ‘Sayuri’ in Japan) is a beautiful, colourful, gorgeous film showing the spirit of this one girl as she battles against the odds. That may sound cliched and it probably is but I like that kind of film as it requires less thinking on my part! Personally, I didn’t care that most of the actresses weren’t Japanese. They were trained in the art of being a geisha which would no doubt have been the same if local talent was cast. Its a dying art and I don’t expect they know much better just because they are the same nationality. Besides, Chinese can act better and that is a fact so get over it! They were chosen for ability rather but I can understand why Japanese people get upset about a foreigner portraying one of their own. Be that as it may, people often portray different nationalities in the Western world.

I was eagerly anticipating the film release at the end of 2005 having read Arthur Golden’s book during my break from Japan earlier that same year. Unlike the other ‘films set in Japan’ reviewed on here, ‘Memoirs…’ is very high profile so the story is already known to most. Basically, impoverished nine year old girl Chiyo is sold to a geisha house in Kyoto’s Gion district and struggles with her new family and new life, particularly the head geisha Hatsumomo who is jealous of her beauty. Hatsumomo’s rival Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) becomes Chiyo’s new mentor and renames her Sayuri where she goes on to master the artistic and social skills which are all part of a geisha’s appeal. As WWII looms the story takes a turn which would forever change the world of geisha.

As someone who is intrigued by geisha and read a fair few books about them I still don’t really understand or see their charm like so many others do but thats probably just down to a difference in culture. I have seen ‘Memoirs….’ quite a few times and think the stars of the show are not Ken Watanabe (The Chairman), Ziyi Zhang (Sayuri) or Michelle Yeoh (who I prefer in her more combat roles especially the James Bond film ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’) but Gong Li as Hatsumomo who delivers a master performance as the wicked witch of this Cinderella type story. The young Chiyo features for the first hour and that is the part of the story I like the most as it shows her uphill battle which the young Suzuka Ohgo performs very well. My enduring image of the movie is the one of Chiyo running through the many torii gates after she’d just met The Chairman. Together with John Williams’ superb score this is a beautiful, visually stunning moment which changes her life forever. (Watch it here.) Having said that, is it only me who thinks there’s something wrong with the idea that The Chairman set his sights on a young girl and then waits until she grows up before getting her!

Most of the movie was filmed on a specially-built village in Los Angeles but there were a few scenes made in Japan for real and those were done at a few temples in and around Kyoto. At 145 minutes the film is too long for my liking (even though I was enjoying it a lot I do recall getting restless in my seat after two hours when I saw it at the cinema) and having the actors all speaking English makes no sense. Subtitles should have been used but then I guess far fewer people would have bothered to go and watch it. Apart from that I really enjoyed it.