Lost in Translation
The Usual Hollywood Treatment Stifles a Potentially Compelling Japanese Saga
“A story like mine should never be told,” the narrator of Memoirs of a Geisha warns as her story opens on the Japanese fishing village from which she and her sister are soon taken—sold by their father to a mysterious man who ships them off to pre-World War II Kyoto. It’s a risky way to begin any movie—Should never be told, eh?—and if Memoirs was a failure, this statement’s prescience would come back to haunt director Rob Marshall (Chicago). Luckily, it’s not a failure—well, not a complete one.
Based on Arthur Golden’s 1997 best seller of the same name about a young geisha who dreams of forbidden love, Marshall’s adaptation is a vast improvement over the bizarrely celebrated fiasco that was Chicago—a movie that had the positive effect of resurrecting the screen musical but also lowered the genre’s expectations to a level just above Cop Rock.
After 9-year-old Chiyo (Suzuka Ohko, a Japanese Dakota Fanning) arrives in Kyoto, she is forever separated from her sister and sold to an okiya, or geisha house, where she is to be trained as a geisha. Geisha, despite the misconceptions that often surround them, are not prostitutes, courtesans, or wives—in fact, they are forbidden to love. They sell their skills, not their bodies. “Geisha” literally means “artist,” we are told, so to be called geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art. In other words, geisha were the supermodels of their day.
And as with supermodels, divas exist among the geisha ranks. Some are benevolent, such as Mameha (Michelle Yeoh); others embrace the bitch within, like Hatsumomo, played with vampish glee by Gong Li. Hatsumomo reigns her okiya like Janice Dickinson and immediately identifies Chiyo, destined to be a great beauty with her entrancing blue eyes, as a future threat. It’s not long before Hatsumomo tricks Chiyo into destroying an expensive kimono. For this, Chiyo’s chance to become a geisha is stripped from her, though an encounter with a kind, older man called only the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) inspires her to fight to become one if only so she can win the Chairman’s affection—a creepy obsession when you think about. After all, Chiyo is 9, and the Chairman is at least in his 30s. When her story skips six years ahead and we begin to learn the Chairman has loved Chiyo from afar much of this time, things get even creepier. Ah, true love.
Ziyi Zhang as the 15-year-old Chiyo—now renamed Sayuri—is a wonder to behold as she somehow portrays fragility in the same moment as willful resolve. Her transformation from a servant girl into a geisha requires the recalibration of every mannerism she displays before donning the white face paint. Even when WWII arrives and the Chairman sends Sayuri to a distant—and safe—rural kimono factory, Zhang’s manner of comportment remains unchanged, despite being reduced to working with her hands. After the war passes (woefully summarized in less than five minutes), Sayuri gets the chance to pay back the Chairman’s kindness by wooing, as only a geisha can, the U.S. military commanders who have the authority to invest in the Chairman’s war-ruined business. How can Sayuri say no to the man she has loved since childhood?
Zhang’s appearance also marks the beginning of the movie’s slow decline. What begins as an innocuous, even charming—albeit whitewashed—interpretation of a little-known Japanese subculture quickly succumbs to Hollywood whimsy. Western attitudes are injected into the characters where they don’t belong, while complex geisha history is summed up in broad, superficial strokes best expressed in fortune-cookie wisdoms such as “Beauty and agony for us live side by side.” Given the opportunity to explore the geisha’s textured world, Marshall opts for window dressing.
Which is not to say it’s not beautiful window dressing. Geisha offers plenty to enjoy, even if you have to put up with the Japanese-accented English from the primarily non-Japanese cast. A good deal of press has complained that Chinese actresses are playing Japanese women, but the truth is that few actresses approach the on-screen charisma and luminosity of Zhang, Li, and Yeoh. But did that mean they had to speak in the same insulting, stilted manner Hollywood has always used for token Japanese characters: “My world. Is as forbidden. As it is. Fragile.”
So don’t be so hard on yourself, Chiyo. A story like yours should be told—just not by Hollywood.