Memoirs of a Geisha: Rob Marhsall’s Misfire

The best thing to be said about “Memoirs of a Geisha,” Rob Marshall’s schmaltzy Hollywood adaptation of Arthur Golden’s highly acclaimed 1997 novel is that Louis B. Mayer, MGM’s head in the 1930s and 1940s, would have approved of it.

Shallow and old-fashioned, “Memoirs of Geisha” is to the uniquely Japanese phenomenon what “The Color Purple” was to the African-American experience, a pretty but fake studio-bound movie, directed by an American director who looks at his distinctive characters from the outside. I mention “The Color Purple” because like “Geisha,” it was a major disappointment, and Spielberg, its director, was attached to “Geisha” as helmer and now serves as one of its producers.

This picture registers as “Geisha 101,” an undergraduate anthropology class that treats its subject as a remote exotic subculture, and feels obligated to impart the most basic facts about a geisha’s life. Hence, the story is punctuated with such banal statements as “A geisha serves as a companion to men but she is not a prostitute,” or “a geisha is never free to love.” At one point, the central character observes, “My world is as forbidden as it is fragile; without its mysteries, it cannot survive.”

With its first-person narration, author Golden offered an intriguingly detailed and historically sweeping look at the world of one geisha for half a century. The romantic epic novel, which has been translated into 52 languages, was for two years on the New York Times’ best-seller list, eventually selling more than four million copies in English alone.

Among other things, what was impressive about “Geisha” as a book was that it was written by a man, and an American one. Golden provided a multi-layered, extensively researched look at a little-known Japanese subculture. Simplifying matters considerably, and deviating from the book in significant matters, the screen version unfolds as a fable, a Cinderella story that could have easily begun with a voice-over like, “Once upon a time in a remote village.”

While in production, questions were raised about the casting of not one but three Asian actresses for the lead roles: Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li, and Michelle Yeoh, each beautiful and talented in her own right. The filmmakers claim that they cast the roles with the best available talent since there were no Japanese stars. But Im curious to know how the Japanese press and public would take this awkward casting when “Geisha” opens there, just days after the U.S. premiere.

The cast and the fact that a non-Japanese director has directed “Geisha” would not have mattered so much if the film were subtler, more nuanced, and more faithful to the book. But in the hands of Marshall, whose musical “Chicago” won the 2002 Oscar, it becomes a picture that could play on a double-bill with “Sayonara,” made half a century ago, since both melodramas reflect the same Hollywood middlebrow sensibility.

Marshall has said that, the story’s exotic locale notwithstanding, he was taken by the universality of the plight of the young orphan Chiyo and her eventual triumph after an accidental meeting changes the course of her life. And that’s basically the approach that screenwriter Robin Swicord (“Little Women”) has taken in her classically constructed tale.

Unfolding in clearly separated acts, and ending on an upbeat note, Swicord underlies the theme of triumph of the human spirit against all odds. Two other (non-credited) writers have reportedly worked on the scrip: Playwright Doug Wright (“Quill”), who contributed to the dialogue, and writer-director Anthony Minghella (“English Patient”), who rewrote some of the narration in the movie’s third act during postproduction. (However, the Writers Guild ruled that Swicord deserves to get sole credit).

The yarn begins in 1929, near the end of the geishas’ golden era, with the breakup of a family. After their mother’s death, two sisters from a fishing village are sent by their elderly father to live in Kyoto. Upon arrival, they are subjected to the scrutiny of Mother (a terrific Kaori Momoi and one of the few Japanese in the ensemble), a bossy woman who smokes a pipe, who considers them for work at an “okiya,” or geisha household. The older sister is rejected, but Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) is accepted, and she joins another girl, Pumpkin, to do all kinds of menial jobs, such as cleaning.

The compound is dominated by Hatsumomo (Gong Li), an arrogant and tempestuous geisha who (mis)treats Chiyo like a slave. Things get worse after Chiyo spots Hatsumomo in a passionate embrace with a man on the street, which is a clear violation of the rules. The senior geisha manipulates Chiyo, promising to tell her the whereabouts of her sister.

Things brighten up when walking down the street, Chiyo encounters a gentle businessman, the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), who buys her an ice candy. This chance meeting inspires Chiyo to become a geisha, and literally changes her life.

Cut to the 1930s, when Chiyo (now played by Ziyi Zhang) is 15, and rescued by the intelligent and sensible Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), Hatsumomo’s rival as Kyoto’s most famous geisha. Mameha negotiates a deal with Mother to train Chiyo as a geisha. This alliance pits Chiyo against Hatsumomo, who takes Pumpkin as her protge and forbids the latter to ever speak to Chiyo again, thus isolating Chiyo completely from any social life.

Mameha devises a careful plan for her student, now renamed Sayuri, including her debut as a dancer and the auction of her virginity. As a result of Mameha’s training, Sayuri is brought into upper-echelon circles that include the Chairman and his business associate Nobu (Koji Yakusho), an older, unattractive man who wishes to become Sayuri’s patron (danna in Japanese).

Last segment jumps to World War II and its disruptive effects on the characters’ lives. The women are separated and sent away to various parts of the countryside. But at the end of the War, Sayuri reunites with Mameha in Kyoto and remeets Nobu and the Chairman, who ask for her help in cutting a business deal with the Americans.

As simplistic as it is, plot-wise, the film’s midsection is the most interesting since it details the hidden world, where Sayuri is taught how to behave as a geisha. Nonetheless, the film ends on an optimistic note, and historically much earlier than the book. Set in the 1980s, the novel concludes with Sayuri as an old woman living in the Waldorf Towers.

Swicord’s dramatic scheme posits Sayuri between two vastly different women: Mameha and Hatsumomo. Sayuri’s mentor Mameha, who understands the limits of an intimate relationship with a special patron, teaches her how to keep her feelings tightly reined. Unlike Hatsumomo, Mameha knows that a proper geisha cannot afford to indulge her passion for any man.

As depicted in the film, Sayuri’s life is defined by hidden desires, or lacks, the first of which are her absent sister and then her friend Pumpkin. However, dramatically speaking, her desire to reunite with the Chairman is far more important. His act of unexpected kindness becomes a leitmotif, a memory Sayuri continues to treasure. The memory of that moment shimmers like a mirage, and sustains Sayuri through years of painful suffering. Sayuri’s feelings for the Chairman thus assume the shape of an unrequited love; she isn’t even sure that he knows she is the little girl with the ice candy.

Marshall tells Sayuri’s story as a nostalgic impression of a bygone time and place. Looking back at her life, she remembers “a little girl with more courage than she knew,” and observes: “These are not the memoirs of an Empress, or of a Queen. These are memoirs of another kind.”

In his direction, Marshall abandons the fast pacing and razzle-dazzle montage of “Chicago,” and opts for a quieter mise-en-scene, perhaps out of respect for the hierarchical social order observed. But Marshall seems to confuse beauty with art. He aestheticized the whole story with images that are pretty but listless, compositions that are symmetrical but lack poignancy.

Due to logistics and historical changes (Japan’s hanamachi, or geisha districts, had changed greatly since the 1930s), most of the movie was shot on the back lot, and it shows. The exotic world was elaborately recreated on three soundstages on L.A. The filmmakers have constructed an entire geisha district, recreating ancient streets and even building a serpentine river on a sprawling ranch in Venture County. Other scenes were shot in Northern California, at the Sacramento Railroad Museum, in the streams of the American River in California Gold Rush County, and on rugged coastal cliffs; one such cliff provides the schmaltziest scene in the movie.

In the lead role, Ziyi Zhang, who’s known to Western audiences from the international hits “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “House of flying Daggers,” is decent but not commanding enough to overcome the film’s trappings. Gong Li, who had recently appeared in Wong Kar-wai’s “2046” and before that in many of Zhang Yimou’s best films (“Raise the Red Lantern”), plays the difficult role of the gorgeous but treacherous Hatsumomo. Gong captures the sadness and fragility that make her character compelling, though her big revenge scene, in which she sets the whole compound on fire, represents a clear deviation from the book.

Rendering the calmest, most appealing performance is Michelle Yeoh, a result of the kind and intelligent character she plays and also the fact that she is the only one of the cast who’s fluent in English. Ken Watanabe, who was Oscar-nominated for his warrior Katsumoto in “The Last Samurai,” is cast as the reserved but gentlemanly Chairman, who claims Sayuri’s heart. However, as proficient as he is, his part is limited, as are all the other male roles.

Unfortunately, “Memoirs of a Geisha” is not even satisfying as a fairy tale set in an enticing, unattainable world. Overall, the film comes across as an anthropology class on the mores of a geisha’s life. Time and again, we are given civic lessons either diretly through the story or via voice-over narration that geishas are neither wives nor prostitutes, but artists and companions who earn their living entertaining powerful men. That geishas are trained dancers, singers, and musicians, as well as witty conversationalists, who laugh at their client’s jokes but never tell their secrets. One of my favorite lines in the movie is when Sayuri is told, “a geisha creates a drama with a simple flick of her fan.”