Memoirs of a Geisha

Ziyi Zhang in Memoirs of a Geisha (©2005 Columbia Picture Industries Inc.)

“Geisha are not courtesans and we are not wives. We sell our skills, not our bodies. We create another secret world, a place only of beauty. The very word geisha means artist, and to be a geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art.”

Taking his cues from the bestselling novel by Arthur Golden, director Rob Marshall (Chicago) weaves cinematic poetry into the 1930s story of a Japanese girl in a fishing village whose poor and aging father sells her to an okiya to be trained as a geisha. Like the novel, the movie takes us on the geisha’s journey through her years of grooming—from musical performance to manner and appearance, from the act of walking gracefully in a kimono to the art of pouring tea, from the knack of conversation to the skill of attracting a wealthy man who will bid for the privilege of taking the young geisha’s virginity.

The geisha’s story is seen through the young, frightened, and alluring gray eyes of Chiyo (played by young Suzuka Ohgo and then by Ziyi Zhang), who is taken from her home and deposited into the company of very few allies and one overwhelming enemy. Memoirs is Chiyo’s story of desperation and survival and also of falling in love.

This fully engaging story is delivered by a satisfying cast of performers, including Michelle Yeoh as Chiyo’s patron sister and Ken Watanabe as Chiyo’s love interest. Ziyi Zhang is convincing as Sayuri (the grown-up Chiyo), but her toned-down role is not as memorable as her explosive portrayal of Jen Yu in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Top-notch Li Gong is the stunning and venomous geisha Hatsumomo, who is bent on bringing Chiyo to ruin.

Marshall’s film is a work of art, though not particularly Japanese art. This is little surprise for a movie filmed in Los Angeles starring a Chinese cast and based on a book penned by an American man. Geisha belonged to a culture resonant with delicacy—of paper-thin walls, fragrant white orchids, tiny origami cranes, and hollow stems of bamboo. And that delicacy is sorely missing here. But this is not to discourage you from seeing the film. You will be educated in the ways of geisha. And thoroughly entertained.