Year Released: 2005
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Starring: Ziyi Zang, Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Wanatabe, Koji Yakusho
(PG-13, 145 min.)
"Beware of all enterprises that require a new set of clothes." Henry David Thoreau
Allow yourself to be blinded by the beauty in this idealized tale portraying the life of a geisha. But beneath the splendor of silk kimonos, the film is essentially a melodrama with a love story at least a little creepy by Western standards.
Memoirs of a Geisha works best as the struggle of a young innocent cast into early adversity by poverty and ill fate, not unlike many of Charles Dickens’ captivating tales. Sold off by their ill and impoverished parents, two sisters end up in Kyoto, but only nine-year-old Chiyo makes the cut at the Geisha House, possibly because her unique grey-blue eyes have the look of water. Her older sister is sent directly to the pleasure district where she quickly must earn her bread as a prostitute.
Much of the film wrestles with depicting the differences between these two professions, taking us behind the scenes into the secret world of geishas. Literally an “art person” a geisha’s training in music, poetry, dance, and sophisticated conversation was every bit as demanding and rigorous as a knight’s apprenticeship. We watch the young Chiyo learn the ancient art of playing the stringed samisen, see her learn to hold her head like a swan as her body becomes one with the music in a dance of exquisite beauty and grace.
She suffers for beauty’s sake, too, learning to navigate Kyoto’s crowded streets in platform sandals, and sleeping with her head perched on a raised sliver of a cushion to protect her coiffure, a device which makes sleeping on a jetliner look like child’s play by contrast. She also suffers because of her beauty as well, since the reigning geisha at her house, Hatsumomo (Gong Li), sees her as a threat and does everything to diminish this potential rival.
Unlike prostitutes, who seem constricted by a generally abusive male world, it is the females in Memoirs of a Geisha who inflict the physical and emotional pain. For damaging a prominent Geisha’s kimono, Chiyo is beaten by Mother of the Geisha House, who sees her only as a commodity and coldly appraises her earning potential and bone structure like someone inspecting horseflesh. By the same token, we see some of these women as quite powerful; each geisha aspiring to prove her worth so she might ultimately inherit the house from her “mother.”
On the other hand, the dapper gentlemen who escort the lovely silk-gowned Geishas to operas or allow them to pour tea and sake are, for the most part, quite civil, respectful and deferential. The discrete display of a bare wrist or the “accidental” touch of a knee under the table are about all that are allowed in the form of seduction.
Yet, the custom of mizuage, the practice of selling a young geisha’s virginity to the highest bidder, is accepted and celebrated much like a debutante’s coming out party. And her prestige rests upon the monetary value placed on this ritualized deflowering, just as a southern Belle’s may be determined by the list of names on her dance card. If she is lucky, a geisha will eventually acquire a patron who will provide for her.
Much of the explanation for the geisha’s cultural niche is explained by the practice of arranged marriages, the relatively civilized outlet for well-meaning men in loveless marriages to enjoy some female companionship of their choice. Of course, the geishas have to smile and cajole anyone with enough cash to garner their favors. And the wives in these arranged marriages do not have the same options as their free wheeling husbands.
Perhaps the lingering realities under the lovely silk are what ultimately taint a film Hollywood bills as one of its greatest love stories. But let’s face it, with a quasi romance between blond and ape as well as other less conventional couples emerging from celluloid this year, I guess movie goers will have to take what they can get.
The ostensible love story in Memoirs of a Geisha begins when the young Chiyo, not too much beyond eleven at the time, is befriended by a gentleman who brings some hope and joy into the life of the sad-eyed beauty by some kind words and plum ice. Chiyo never forgets this kindness and vows to become geisha and win his love some day.
Of course, the powerful gentleman, played by always noble Ken Wantanabe, freely tells young Chiyo that his daughters also love plum ice, just before he encourages her that she might one day be as elegant as either of the two geishas on his arm that prophetic afternoon.
Am I the only one who finds this somewhat creepy? A married man, with daughters not too distant in age from Chiyo, lifts her spirits by inspiring her to be geisha, or to my narrow Western mind, ultimately a high-class courtesan. That he ultimately is the guiding force behind her rise in that profession and their later romance the focus of the film, I find somewhat disquieting.
Beneath all the silk and cherry blossoms, there is something slightly sordid here.
The true turning point in Memoirs of a Geisha occurs when the young Chiyo is truly distraught. The ever resourceful and gleefully wicked geisha, Hatsumomo, has killed two birds with one stone by persuading the young Chiyo to practice her calligraphy on the priceless silk kimono of her greatest rival, Mameha.
Thus Hatsumomo has injured a current rival and placed the blame on a potential one. Chiyo is first beaten and then removed from geisha training; her days have become an unremitting routine of the most menial chores with no hope of a better future.
As she stares into the muddy water under a bridge, it is a though she looks into a future as stagnant and bleak. But her sad eyes catch the attention of a wealthy gentleman who knows that beyond his kind words, the sure way to bring a smile to Chiyo’s face is with an ice of her choice. She chooses plum.
This simple gesture makes all the difference to her and Chiyo goes on from that day with renewed hope and purpose, vowing to be the greatest geisha in Kyoto.
Oh the wonders of ice cream! Well, not exactly ice cream. Chiyo’s was more akin to our lowly snow cones. But in view of her monumental rise to geisha stardom, I have classed up this simple ice to a sorbet.
Enjoy it, and usher in your own sense of renewed hope and purpose this new year.
2 1/4 lb Kelsey, Freedom, or Santa Rosa plums (about 9)
3/4 c Sugar
1/4 ts Salt
2 ts Cognac
1 ts Balsamic vinegar
Cut plums in half and remove pits. Cut halves into 1/2-inch pieces. Combine plums, 3/4 C water, the sugar, and the salt in a 5-quart nonreactive saucepan. Cook over medium heat until plums break down, about 30 minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent plums from scorching.
Remove from heat and cool slightly. Puree mixture in a food processor and strain into a medium bowl set over an ice bath to chill. Stir in cognac and vinegar.
Freeze mixture in an ice-cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions.
Recipe Source: Just Fruit Recipes