In 1997, novelist Arthur Golden offered readers a riveting story of a hidden world in his acclaimed novel, Memoirs of a Geisha. The sweeping romantic epic was for two years on the New York Times' best-seller list, selling more than four million copies in English. The book has been translated into 52 languages.
Director Marshall, whose 2002 movie musical “Chicago won the Best Picture Oscar, and producers Lucy Fisher, Douglas Wick, and Steven Spielberg, along with an international cast, have brought this fable to the screen.
I savor the exotic world in which the story unfolds, but I was just as taken by the universality of the young orphan Chiyo's plight, and her eventual triumph after an accidental meeting changes the course of her life.
Specific and Universal
This story lives in a very specific world, and yet the underlying theme of triumph of the human spirit against all odds connects to any culture. The fact that this one child, after being taken from her home and sold into slavery, can survive and ultimately find love is deeply moving to me. Especially when that love is forbidden to her.
The first thing I did to prepare for the project was to reread the book. I needed to take the journey from the beginning and see what hit me.
I knew I was not going to make a geisha documentary. I knew that the drama of these characters combined with the allure and exoticism of their world would allow us to achieve something unique and compelling. And while I knew I would veer from tradition, when it was necessary to serve my vision of the story, I need to thoroughly understand the reality first.
I had decided to tell Sayuri's story as an impression of a time and place, but needed to thoroughly understand the reality first. We all agreed that the total immersion in Sayuri's world was the only way to begin, so we traveled to Kyoto together to experience everything we could. We visited museums and shrines, toured the kimono factory, attended a sumo match, rode in rickshaws, scouted the coast of Japan's Sea, attended spring festivals dances, and watched an apprentice geisha (maiko) apply her makeup and dress.
Shooting On Location
When we analyzed the amount of work we had to do in the streets, there was just no way we could disrupt an active community for that long to recreate what we needed to tell this story. Also, Japan's hanamachi, or geisha districts, had changed greatly since the period during which the film occurs. Even in the beautiful ancient cities, we could not find an area of businesses that was untouched by modern elements.
Recreating Japan in California
We created the film's exotic and elaborate world on three soundstages on Los Angeles, and also constructed an entire geisha district, recreating ancient streets and even building a serpentine river on a sprawling ranch in Venture County, California. We then moved to Northern California, where we filmed as the Sacramento Railroad Museum, in the streams of the American River in California Gold Rush County, and on rugged coastal cliffs.
Sites in Japan
To capture authentic locations, we filmed in Kiyomizu-tera, a Buddhist temple on stilts founded in 778 and rebuilt in 1633, and the Buddhist Yoshimine-tera, which dates back to 1029. The still waters at the Shinto Heian Jingu shrine in the heart of Kyoto provided an eloquent visual equivalent to Sayuri's mood in one of the film's final sequences. Principal photography completed in a remote tea and tangerine-growing region near the town of Kawane-cho.
Casting Sayuri with the Right Actress
We see the character of Sayuri blossom from girl to woman, and from servant girl to superstar, and we didn't want to split that into two different parts. Our actress had to be credible as a fifteen-year-old and a thirty-year-old. She also had to be a strong actress and speak English. And we needed a brilliant dancer, because dance is so important in the geisha world and a key element in Sayuri's personal story. Zhang Ziyi, who had appeared in the international hit, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” was the right actress for us.
Gong Li as Hatsumomo
Gong Li, who had appeared in 2046 and many Zhang Yimou's films pays the difficult role of the gorgeous but treacherous Hatsumomo. I knew the pitfalls an actress might face with this character. It would have been easy to play her as a one-dimensional villain. But Gong Li gives her a three-dimensionality with a sadness and fragility that make her character incredibly compelling.
Ken Watanabe as the Chairman
Ken Watanabe, who was Oscar-nominated for his portrayal of the warrior Katsumoto in “The Last Samurai,” anchored the cast as the Chairman, the man who claims Sayuri's heart. Audiences remember Ken, who recently starred in “Batman Begins,” from the popular Japanese comedy, “Tampopo.”
Sense of Discovery
There were moments of pure magic at every stage of this project. The sense of discovery was exhilarating, from the early days of research through principal photography, and all during post-production. To collaborate with artists of this caliber was a personal milestone for me, and their contribution added another wonderful layer of texture to the film.
The Film as a Fable
We chose to tell the story as a fable, set in a world as enticing and unattainable as Sayuri herself. Making the film was challenging, thrilling, sometimes frightening and always rewarding. My hope is that we have done justice to “Memoirs of a Geisha.”