Ziyi Zhang as Sayuri Nitta
Ken Watanabe as The Chairman
Michelle Yeoh as Mameha
Kôji Yakusho as Nobu
Kaori Momoi as O-kami (landlady)
Youki Kudoh as O-Kabo (Pumpkin)
Li Gong as Hatsumomo
Suzuka Ohgo as Chiyo
Kenneth Tsang as General
Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as The Baron
Thomas Ikeda as Mr. Bekku
Randal Duk Kim as Dr. Crab
“Memoirs” is another lovely but flawed romantic drama with gorgeous music and visuals. It’s hard not to get lulled to sleep by the slow pace until Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh enter the picture and turn things around.
The life story of Sayuri Nitta (Zhang Ziyi) is told from being sold to the geisha house as a child to her competition with the house’s head geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li), being taken under the wing of the matronly Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), and her lifelong unrequited love affair with The Chairman (Ken Watanabe).
When people learned that “Chicago” director Rob Marshall would be directing the big screen adaptation of Arthur Golden’s international bestseller “Memoirs of a Geisha,” the book’s fans had barely gotten over the loss of director Steven Spielberg when word started coming in that the movie would be shot in Hollywood on constructed sets, rather than in Japan, with the key Japanese roles being played by China’s most famous actresses. And it would be almost entirely in English.
Putting that incidental baggage aside, “Memoirs of a Geisha” is a lovely companion to 2003’s “The Last Samurai,” being a somewhat Americanized version of a transition point in Japanese history. It’s told through the eyes of a young girl named Chiyo, sold to the geisha house at a young age by her poor parents. She is forced to pay her dues as a “maiko” or apprentice until she receives the kindness of a stranger and her destiny is rewritten. She swears to repay this man, The Chairman, by becoming the perfect geisha just for him. Soon after, she’s taken under the wing of the kindly Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) who nurtures her talents and grooms her to become the most sought after geisha in Japan, renaming her “Sayuri” and starting a bidding war for the right to take Sayuri’s highly coveted “mizuyage,” her virginity.
Even if you haven’t read Arthur Golden’s book, you’ll learn more than you’ve ever wanted to know about the geisha, the mysterious women of Japan, who are far more than mere prostitutes or escorts, providing entertainment, conversation and companionship for the powerful men that can afford them. Through Sayuri, we watch a possible career path of one such geisha from the innocence of youth to the fame and glory of a profession that was still highly respected back in the early 20th Century.
For the most part, the movie is all glamour and beauty, rarely dwelling on the fact that the plot revolves around a young girl sold into indentured servitude in the sex trade. That fact does pop up in the form of a sleazy doctor who collects geisha’s virginities, an idea that is pretty sick in itself, although to Sayuri, it’s just another step in her path to finally being with The Chairman. Of course, like all her other films, Zhang has a moment where her clothes are ripped off, this time by the devious Baron who wants to get a look at the goods before investing his money. Oddly, “Memoirs” doesn’t deal so much with the sexual aspect of the business, as much as the artistic one, which allows the geishas to provide entertainment.
Unless you’ve read the book, it might not be obvious when this story takes place, but once WWII hits Japan, the movie becomes something different, more like a wartime romance in the vein of “From Here to Eternity.” Sayuri is forced to give up the glamour of geishadom to work in the rice fields, but she never gives up hope, and it’s this romance between her and the Chairman, played by a clean-shaven Ken Watanabe, which drives the third act.
The main reason to see this movie is Zhang Ziyi, the Chinese ingénue from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers”, but tragically, you’ll have to wait over twenty minutes to see her. Instead, we get the younger Suzuka Ohgo as Chiyo, Sayuri’s younger identity, dealing with the politics of the geisha house and being tormented by the Hatsumomo, a juicy bad girl role for actress Gong Li, Ms. Zhang’s predecessor in defining Chinese cinema in America.
When Ziyi takes over, joined by her “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” co-star Michelle Yeoh as Mameha, things start to get moving, as we learn more about what’s involved with being a geisha, specifically their training in how to entertain men. Mameha goes one step further, teaching Sayuri the tricks of winning men’s hearts, but then pushing Sayuri off on the Chairman’s disfigured superior Nobu, much to the disappointment of Sayuri, who is dead set on being with the Chairman, the film’s recurring romantic theme.
When you can get three of China’s most talented exports to star in your movie, it’s hard to go wrong, even if they’re not quite as believable as Japanese geishas when they’re all speaking in broken English. Still, Ziyi is as lovely and charming as ever, showing off her dancing skills once again in a passionate number done on 7-inch lifts, which is the film’s unforgettable showstopper. Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li offer terrific support for the younger actress, on the positive and negative sides of the geisha equation, and in some ways, both actresses are playing against type. The trio of Chinese actresses is rounded out by Youki Kudo as Pumpkin, a geisha in training like Sayuri, able to adjust to the influx of Western influence by becoming a party girl for the American GI’s. Ken Watanabe’s role is major, but his part is played down in favor of the various actresses.
The best move Rob Marshall made was to hire John Williams to handle the film’s score. Steven Spielberg would probably have done the same, but it’s unlikely that you’ll realize Williams composed this score, since the Asian instrumentation is a nice change from his usual schtick. Combined with Dion Beebe’s beautiful camerawork and lighting, the entire movie is a feast for the eyes and ears, despite the obvious problems with the pacing.
Just like “The Last Samurai” was improved upon by the films of Japanese director Yoji Yamada , I expect that a more realistic take on the geisha experience will eventually find its way to America from Japan, so they can show Hollywood how it’s done. In the meantime, “Memoirs” is a nice, if not a bit generic, introduction to the world of geishas, and the type of love story that Hollywood does so well.
The Bottom Line:
Although “Memoirs of a Geisha” may be flawed by its slow pace and less credible because it’s in English, you have to appreciate the attention to detail and the beauty imbued into every scene by Rob Marshall and his crew, creating an epic love story that is sure to appeal to those who love romance.
Memoirs of a Geisha opens in select cities this Friday and everywhere on December 23.