Memoirs of a Geisha

Director Rob Marshall, Ziyi Zhang and Ken Watanabe on the set of Memoirs
So I saw Memoirs of a Geisha yesterday at the dollar theatre. I should note I haven’t read the book, so this is from a newcomer’s point of view. Memoirs is a dark and uplifting picture of one geisha’s life, set in the first half of the 20th century. I was amazed how fragile the profession really is. A geisha is, as states the protagonist, a “living work of art” defined by her mystery, and is not just a prostitute with “a white face and painted lips”. A geisha is schooled in the art of conversation, dance, music and grace in all things, even how to walk. The geisha-houses (or, “tea houses”) are run by women, which is an interesting difference from the male pimps of contemporary western civilization. I should note that our geisha did not, however, choose her profession; she was sold by her parents, and there are few scenes of uncomfortable violence that make it very clear she was not there under her own will. The writer skillfully drops a beautiful analogy, describing the protagonist as water: “block water, and it will find a new path” — lending a sense of hope to an otherwise bleak setup. I’m not going to get into the plot, which was straightforward, but there is a definite moment where I suddenly realized what time period I was watching, and all of a sudden I had a rush of questions, which the movie proceeded to answer — which was thrilling.
Bottom line: definitely worth a watch, if not for its historical and foreign nature, then for the beautiful costumes, for which it won an Oscar this year. 8/10.

4 thoughts on “Memoirs of a Geisha”

  1. Interesting the scenes of violence that make it clear she’s not doing it of her own free will… that’s very western. In Japan being a geisha was an honour and many women really desperately wanted to be geisha. Our western hypocrisy around sex doesn’t let us imagine for a moment that women might actually enjoy prostitution, but there’s no particuarly reason why some wouldn’t, particularly in a time when women who were prostitutes were educated and sought-after (like hetairi in Rome). Just a thought 🙂

  2. Oh, no, I agree with you, re: the violence being out of place — hence the “I should note, however” bit. Quite the contrast from our beloved Inara in Firefly. Who are the Hetairi?
    Update: from UBC’s Theatre 301 page: “…an exception to these constraints were the prostitutes, especially the courtesans called hetairi, who were allowed to move freely among men in public, and were educated. The hetairi were often well-known in society for their literary skills, and wore distinctively decorated robes and dyed blonde hair.”

  3. the book is incredibly beautiful, and i’d highly suggest reading it. i was captivated by the poetry of the story in a way few books are able to do for me.

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