“A story like mine should never be told,” insists the geisha Sayuri (played as an adult by Ziyi Zhang). “For my world is as forbidden as it is fragile. Without its mysteries, it cannot survive.”
Maybe not so much. Surely this is the most obvious commercial strategy regarding Memoirs of a Geisha, to pitch it as a tale of delicate, thrilling secrets, a saga of women who are trained to be art for the pleasure of men. And yet, directed by the dramatically unsubtle Rob Marshall, who brought Chicago pounding into theaters three years ago, the film is a series of set pieces, gorgeous certainly, but also predictable and unwieldy.
This despite and because of the presence of the glorious women actors at its center, including Zhang as the youngest geisha, struggling to fulfill a seeming destiny and live a life of her “own” (the term is only relative here), Michelle Yeoh as her mentor Mameha, and wondrous Gong Li as her rival Hatsumomo. The women are stunning. They are also Chinese, which makes their casting at least awkward and tone-deaf, and, according to Japanese and Chinese community groups, offensive (historical tensions make the presumption that all “Asians look alike” troubling in specific ways, no matter that, as Marshall has said, he cast “the best actor for the role”).
These substantive concerns are only exacerbated by others. Memoirs of a Geisha thwarts itself persistently, and not only because it’s so in love with — not to say it fetishizes — the colorful silks and elaborate makeup that decorate its titular character and her “sisters.” Based on Arthur Golden’s novel (renowned for its twisty, “literary” structure, whereby a male reader/writer purports to translate the geisha’s story), the film is straightforward in the crassest, most disappointing ways.
Sayuri is desirable for any number of reasons. For one thing, at least at first, she is new. Sold by her poor family to a geisha house, or okiya, when she’s only nine (and played by Suzuka Ohgo), she’s smart and careful and she has blue eyes (this particular point makes you want to send copies of Toni Morrison’s early novel to all those involved with the production). Hatsumomo is immediately jealous, threatening the child with all sorts of retributions for even breathing in her direction. Hatsumomo becomes even fiercer toward Sayuri when she’s grown up: “I will destroy you!” she proclaims, meaning, the geisha in training will never be the geisha she is.
The problem is that being a geisha, as much training and perfection and talent it takes, still relegates women to pleasing men. They insist they are not prostitutes, as they do not sell sex except as illusion (the argument might be made that this is always the case). They do, however, sell their virginity, and pride themselves on being well paid for it. This distinction that isn’t one is a rather major caveat the film doesn’t begin to address, treating the geisha’s “mysteries” as if they have no bearing on (ongoing) class, gender and generational prejudices (again, the terms are slippery: this is not to say that marriage doesn’t sometimes raise similar concerns). The fact of Sayuri’s stunning blue eyes only underlines this refusal to engage with the hardships geishas endure as a matter of course. She is “special,” she is treasured, she is property.
Throughout her adversities, Sayuri yearns for a handsome man she meets when she is a child, the well-dressed and conventionally self-absorbed Chairman (Ken Watanabe). His brief kindness to her during this first encounter (he buys her a sugar ice treat) leads her to imagine him as a sort of noble soul who will save her from her wretched life. This wretchedness is depicted in terms of performance: the film offers several “preparation” montages (the dressing and making up of geishas as beautiful objects) and performances, wherein Sayuri sings and dances, having rehearsed her acts to perfection.
These extreme displays of artifice are lovely and a little daunting. They are also rather grimly exalted by the camera — Memoirs never questions the overdetermination of beauty by masculine standards of exoticism and “mystery,” only to covet it. Images of this lifelong process of objectification are framed by others that approximate “history,” including the Sino-Japanese war (while omitting overt references to the Japanese occupation of China), which leaves the okiya, among other places, devastated, and Sayuri laboring in a field. When she’s called on to perform as a geisha once more, in order to save her “family” (the one into which she was, you recall, sold), Sayuri is only worried that her appearance is no longer so ideal as to solicit gasps of appreciation.
Sayuri does find her way back into geisha-ness, which the film treats as a kind of triumph, perhaps of artifice over substance, or maybe sheer will over circumstances: the fantasy remains the most precious object, whether embodied by gorgeous women or imagined by them (as Sayuri persists in imagining the Chairman as the solution to her difficulties). So unexamined, so delicate, so mysterious: the geisha is not so much remembered here as she is conjured and undermined, all at once and again and again.