I watched another movie about women last Sunday (3/29): “Memoirs of a Geisha” released in 2005, directed by Rob Marshall from a novel of the same name by Arthur Golden, based on extensive interviews with surviving Geishas.
This movie is haunting me - I can’t forget it - perhaps because it was so lushly exotic, representing an entirely different world from Western Civilization, beautifully photographed and with many powerful scenes. The backdrop is Japan in the 1930s to late 1940s, which includes World War Two. It can be considered historical drama although it’s also much more than that.
It tells of an eight-year-old girl Chiyo Sakamoto who is sold to a geisha house by her impoverished parents and trained to become a geisha.
The movie makes clear that geishas aren’t prostitutes per se. They’re entertainers whose audiences consists of wealthy men in loveless arranged marriages who are looking for feminine companionship and hopefully a bit of romance.
The goal of every geisha is to become supported in grand style by a wealthy preferably royal patron with whom she hopefully falls in love. These relationships are depicted as secondary marriages, similar to the old European custom of royal men in loveless arranged marriages maintaining long-term mistresses on the side.
A geisha house was an all female environment when men weren’t being entertained. As depicted in this movie, sometimes the women are very supportive and sisterly to each other, which was lovely and quite touching to observe. But unfortunately the women also could be vicious, exploitive, diabolical and vengeful to each other. One geisha even sets fire to a building in the hope of incinerating a rival.
Young girls training to be geishas are taught how to dress, apply cosmetics, singing, dancing, the tea ceremony, and how to conduct interesting conversations, which is to say they’re taught the art of diplomacy. Girls needed above-average intelligence to become suitable companions for successful men, many of whom were royals with advanced educations.
Although geishas aren’t presented as prostitutes, their female owners auction the teenaged geishas’ virginities in order to recoup their investments. The geishas compete with each other for the highest bids, to prove their desirability and superiority, like a boxer winning the heavyweight championship of the world.
Geishas “come out” like American debutantes. Each is given a big party in which she must dance in a room full of men. Chiyo’s coming out was the most smashing scene in the film for me. Fully clothed in traditional style, her dance was nothing like ballet, Broadway chorus routines, thoroughly modern interpretive dance, or hootchy-kootchy burlesque dances. Instead it consisted of weird highly stylized movements to strange (to American ears) music, dramatic lighting, and a background of what looked like undulating strips of red fabric. I’ve never seen anything like it during my 42 years in New York City, where I attended all manner of dance programs. It was enchanting, hypnotic, like teleportation to a strange land.
The movie also was a very complicated love story, but I won’t provide details because I don’t to spoil it for you. I never heard of any of the Asian actresses and actors, all of whom were excellent. I think it’s fair to say this was one of the best movies I’ve ever seen in my life, up there with “Gone With the Wind”, “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Apocalypse Now”. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Watching it was like living another incarnation.