Movies can show us visions of other worlds, exotic vistas, customs, fashions, rules. And they can show us visions of ourselves, with our longings, our fears, our dreams, the and the way love can include them all. “Memoirs of a Geisha” does both. It’s a story of a time and place whose mysteries have kept it hidden but whose secrets turn out to be our own — the need for love, the courage to survive, the profound effects of cruelty and of kindness, the dream that is so deep inside that we barely breathe when we think of it.
Sold by their father, Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) and her sister are taken with no warning from their small fishing village to the city of Kyoto. At the doorway of a geisha house, Chiyo is grudingly accepted but her sister is not. Chiyo will later find that she has been taken to a house of prostitution. Geishas are not prostitutes — the word means “artist.” The most successful geisha’s command huge sums for their ability to entertain and to charm. Their appeal in part is in what they do not reveal, what they hold back. While they are not chaste — they begin their careers by having their virginity auctioned off to the highest bidder — they are not afterward expected to provide sexual favors. It is this idea of being elusive but not unobtainable (or at least not unobtained) that is a part of their attraction and their power.
Chiyo is treated cruelly and beaten. She and her sister plan an escape, but she is unable to be at the meeting place. After that, the closest thing she has to a friend is fellow slave Pumpkin. The owner of the house is the chain-smoking O-Kami, who cares only about survival, and that means money. The most successful geisha in Kyoto, Hatsumomo (Gong Li) lives in their house and she is threatened by Chiyo.
Two tranforming events occur. One day, Chiyo meets a man who buys her a flavored ice and gives her his handkerchief. He is the Chairman (Ken Wantanabe). He becomes her hero. For the first time she has a dream — she wants to be his geisha. She does not receive the proper training until Hatsumomo’s rival Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) takes her on. Whether it is kindness, ambition, or just a strategy to further infuriate Hatsumomo — or a combination of the three, Mameha devotes herself to her pupil. In a very short time she teaches Chiyo, now renamed Sayuri (and played by Ziyi Zhang) all of the arts and artifices of being a geisha. There are thousands of exquisitely intricate rules governing everything from the position of the hand in pouring tea to the position of the fan in performing a dance to the ability to cast a glance so devastating it can knock a man off his bicycle.
Sayuri is soon a sucess, and it requires even more diplomacy and strategy to maintain her position as her competitors use manipulation and deceit to try to discredit her. She again meets the Chairman and is admired by his close friend and colleague. Then the war comes, and when it is over, her geisha skills again provide opportunity and risk.
Sayuri is told that she has a lot of water in her, while her sister is wood. “Water flows from place to place quickly and always finds a crack to spill through. Wood, on the other hand, holds fast to the earth.” Sayuri must be as adaptable as water, but she must hold fast to the earth, too.
The outlines of the story may seem soapy, but the details of the place, time, and culture used to tell the story elevate it to a meaningful and moving saga of identity, longing, and resiliance, as exquisitely presented as a silk kimono.
Parents should know that this movie is about women who are not prostitutes but who do sell their companionship in a manner that can involve sexual favors. Violence includes beating a child and some wartime scenes. Characters drink (one drinks to excess) and smoke. Some audience members may be upset by scenes of children being taken from their parents and sold into what is essentially a form of slavery.
Families who see this movie should talk about the way one small act of kindness can transform a person’s life. What acts of kindness have been important to you? What acts of kindness can you perform? Why did the culture of the geisha become so important in that society? They might also want to talk about the controversial decision to cast Chinese actresses in this very Japanese story — a story, by the way, written by an author who was not a geisha, not Japanese, and not a woman. When can — and when can’t — one person truly understand the experience and perspectives of another culture?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy The Last Emperor. They might also enjoy a comedy about an American woman played by Shirley MacLaine who disguises herself as a geisha called My Geisha and the dated but still moving Oscar-winner Sayonara, about a soldier’s love affair with a Japanese actress. And they should read the award-winning novel by Arthur Golden.