Memoirs of a Geisha
starring Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh, Koji Yakusho, Youki Kudoh, Kaori Momoi, Tsai Chin, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Suzuka Ohgo, Mako, and Gong Li
screenplay by Robin Swicord
directed by Rob Marshall
Based on the book of the same title written by Arthur Golden, this is the film that is called “Sayuri” in Japan, after the main character. The Japanese entertainment media reported some of the negative publicity that accompanied the film’s American opening. Then, there was a little (but not much) of the same when it opened in theaters here. Japanese Americans protested the choice of Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang to play the leading role of the geisha, which is a profoundly traditional and haute couture profession in Japan.
It is interesting. Japanese Americans think and talk as if they are the real Japanese, and they have a right to say such things. I mean, they make more noise about their Japaneseness than the Japanese do. Oh, well. In Japan, Japanese Americans are viewed with suspicion as just another kind of foreigner.
I think if there was a Japanese actress with sufficient talent and sufficient English ability - because this is an English-language film - then there is no reason why the role of Chiyo / Sayuri could not have gone to a Japanese. But there isn’t, so there. Quit bellyaching.
As I say, this is an English-language movie. But it could easily have been a success as a Japanese-language film with English subtitles. American audiences don’t usually like foreign language films, but a few have enjoyed considerable success. I think this film could have been more than it is if it used as much Japanese dialogue as was used in The Last Samurai (starring Ken Watanabe and Tom Cruise), for example.
Set in 1920s-1940s Japan, the sets and costumes are superb. In particular, I loved the colors and tones used for scenery, interiors,
exteriors, clothing, etc. Fantastic. There is something about the Japanese eye for color that is really appealing and fires me with a warm feeling: the use of shadow and light - especially bright light, like in a Van Gogh painting - and dark hues, especially the colors of wood, a traditional building material in these heavily-wooded islands. You see it in famously successful animated movies like Princess Mononoke (Mononoke hime), My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro), and others whose titles I know in Japanese, but not in English.
There is a lot of confusion in the West about Geisha. Geisha are not prostitutes. Tey are businesswomen. But they do refine a coy sensuality and then sell it: the titillatingly uncovered ankle or wrist, the vulnerably exposed nape of the neck, the cute, mincing steps and high-pitched voice of a child. These are the traditional Japanese male fetishes. (The nape of the neck still is.) The Japanese explanation of Geisha as artists, moving works of art, skilled in the arts of traditional dance, music, and witty banter doesn’t really tell us anything, which is typical of Japanese.