Geisha: Part Three, さゆり
WARNING: THIS MOVIE REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!
About a month ago, there was an article in Japan Today about the controversy of authenticity in the then-upcoming movie, 'Memoirs of a Geisha' ('Sayuri', in Japan). Thinking that this would be a great article for my private students, to engage them on a cultural topic they already knew using English, I pared the article down and prepared a lesson plan. Surely every Japanese, especially the women, knew enough about geisha and Gion to initiate a conversation about what is authentic and what is portrayed on TV and movies.
To my surprise, several of my younger students knew what a geisha was but they didn't know many of the important qualities. It seemed I knew more than one of my students who had trouble identifying a musical instrument in a picture. It was a koto, a traditional stringed instrument geisha are taught to use during dance recitals. My students could not differentiate the difference between a mai-ko and a gei-ko, though the mai-ko wear the brighter kimono and have the larger obi and hairpieces. Furthermore, tea houses were assumed to be places to sip tea, like Starbucks, not places where you drink sake and are entertained by gei-ko.
The reason why I am telling you this is to remind you of points I raised in the first two posts: the geisha world, and many other cultural elements in Japan, are disappearing.
So the trick is for a movie director to figure out how to present a story about the mysterious world the geisha live in, knowing there will be filters in place to distort the truth. The Japanese do it all the time, with their period dramas which depict geisha as courtesans of the night. The great Kurosawa himself took enormous liberties with authenticity and his earlier financiers almost shut him down until they realized they were making a lot of money off the guy.
So a filmmaker has some choices, knowing full well that an accurate portrayal of the subject simply is not possible. But how to revere the subject knowing that there are cultural and dramatic liberties which filter reality once removed from a book and is further removed with a movie. Rob Marshall, acclaimed director of 'Chicago', had to either be true to the cultural integrity of the geisha, or stay true to the book, or recognize there is that filter, the several removes from the subject, and move away a step further.
Let me give you an example: when I was traveling in Italy, ten years ago, I ate genuine pizza. Thin crispy crusts with a little sauce, some meat and vegetables and very little cheese. American pizza is wide, much thicker than the real the thing, and lathered with tomato sauce and toppings. In Japan, its American-style pizza but with Japanese items, mayonnaise, cold cucumber, corn and seaweed. Ergo, the real item, the American interpretation of the item, and Japanese interpretation of the American interpretation of the item. Bread topped with mustard, squid and cheese, a special at Pizza Hut according to the Japanese flier stuffed into my mail box this morning.
Marshall's choice was to 'base' his film on the book and distance himself as much as possible from the subject without alienating readers of the book. Marshall also recognized that his target audience must be the general American viewing public, not the Japanese and not Japanophile purists. So he Hollywood-ized the story.
The story very loosely follows details from the book but I emphasize loosely. The city is renamed. Certain elements are completely removed. World War II spans about four minutes. The last third of the book is excised. The US release version is a little different than the Japan version. Characters are replaced or renamed. But it is essentially the story of a little girl sold to slavery who eventually becomes the beautiful geisha, Sayuri.
Now my review: I loved 'Chicago' and I knew that this movie was going to have a lot more action, a la dancing, than the book. I also knew a lot of the talky bits were going to be reduced in favor of visual moments. I also think Marshall made the right decision to distance the movie from the book. But the movie, pure and simple, is a white man's fantasy inspired by another white man's fantasy of geisha. Marshall would hire traditional Japanese musicians to play some pieces and then he would say, "okay, now make it faster, add more beats." Huh? Wait, does he want authentic or does he want hip hop? Same goes for the training, which supposedly took six weeks and involved the actresses touring extensively around Kyoto. Um, no. You don't learn dance for six weeks and then have an American choreographer teach you completely different moves, but I guess this is what happened.
I have seen the Gion Spring Dances, open to the general public as they are. I will be seeing a performance this coming May, tickets cost $120. The cheap seats. These dances are, in a word, boring. Most of the audience sleeps through these things. Tourists soak in about thirty minutes and then they fidgety. The little emo performance art thing that is Sayuri's dance number halfway through the movie is nowhere near the same thing as what I will see.
-Stunning set design
-Superb performances by Watanabe/Yeoh/Li/Zhang&Co.
-Every plot point or motivation leads nowhere, many sequences occurring for no reason at all
-At one point in the movie, I vowed if Sayuri said "I don't understand" one more time, I would reach out and wring her neck
-ESL English. I have to deal with it every day for work. I don't want to have to pay $15 to hear it for two and a half hours
What to do for the DVD release
-Cut an hour from the movie, it will make it tighter, thus stronger
-Require the material from the US and Japan be the same for the DVD
-Lose the dance number or incorporate another one that is closer to what a tourist might actually see if they come to Gion
Here is my final point to this very long post (and I apologize!). My whole review and Marshall's justification for why he made the film the way he did is a house of cards. Marshall said in an interview, and I quote:
"We had index cards of the entire book. We started outlining the movie, pulling away things ... But we were basically very faithful, because I knew it was a beloved book. I wanted to serve that anyway, because it's good.
"While we were writing we started the casting process. And during that time I took my entire team to Japan" -- all the designers, producers, writers, designers. It was much the same team Marshall worked with on "Chicago".
"We just immersed ourselves in the culture, went to teahouses, walked the streets at night, were entertained by geisha, saw an apprentice geisha get made up from start to finish."
With those words from the director's mouth, the house of cards falls. I am not very shocked by the arrogance of the man. But for him to say that he tried to adhere to the book and to the traditions...and then he gives us this movie which is a completely different, and sometimes random, animal is hubris. That's okay, though. His audience is not me. Its the average American who can't tell the difference between a shamisen and a ukelele and honestly doesn't care. Hot chicks in kimono, and you can take the wife with you so she can have her movie cry, and you can even nap some in the middle, that's the target viewing audience Marshall had in mind.
I usually ask people not to come to a movie or a book with preconceptions but I think it is very important that you do for this film. Understand that what you see is NOT based in anyway on authentic traditions. These are Hollywood stereotypes catering to an ignorant public and is not the real thing. Its a fun movie, I enjoyed it but you need to realize that you will not leave the theater having learned something of Japan.
In the spirit of balanced discussion, for further reviews of the movie, here is a brief list:
Hollywood's Faulty 'Memoirs'
Welcome to Kyoto, California
Memoirs, a pleasant suprise.
This film is family safe, but there is sexually suggestive content (including implied attempted rape, selling off virginity and shared bathing).