Geisha’s beauty is only skin deep

“Memoirs of a Geisha’: A problematic book begets a problematic new film

Erin Adler

When novelist Arthur Golden penned the 1997 best seller “Memoirs of a Geisha,” he had to defend his identity as an American white man supposedly spilling a young Japanese woman’s secrets ” and doing so with first-person candor.

As well he should. After all, who was Golden to discuss the mysterious world of a geisha, a sort of Japanese high-class prostitute and entertainer? Can a white person ever enter the world of traditionalist Japan? Can a man ever understand what it means for women to sell their beauty or their bodies? And if they can, should they be trusted to write a book about it?

Doubt about Golden subsided when reviewers read the novel. His research appeared flawless, the story intriguing. His problematic identity was forgotten.

But the questions arise again in the film version of “Memoirs of a Geisha.” In the minds of Hollywood producers, any great book translates into a great film ” and “Geisha” was a best seller.

It has taken seven years for “Geisha” to reach the silver screen. Along the way, it became a film about Japan and Japanese history, mediated by white, American film executives. Predictably, identity issues and race politics resurfaced.

They’re even evident in the film’s giant promotional poster. On it, Ziyi Zhang, who plays the grown-up geisha Sayuri, has the sky-blue eyes of a Scandinavian ” weren’t those “translucent gray” eyes in the novel? ” and a face covered in the opaque white makeup of a geisha. The image seems emblematic of the Westernization of the film and, moreover, the reality of the geisha, as interpreted by Golden.

It’s hard to gauge the exact effect race, nationality and gender had on the film, because film by definition forces simplifications in plot and character. But their influence is there.

Although the film does not intend to turn characters into Asian caricatures or stereotypes, at times it does just that.

Mameha, for instance, the older, successful geisha who acts as Sayuri’s “big sister” in the book, now comes off as beautiful and clever, but little else.

Furthermore, the fact that the novel is the tale of a young Japanese girl’s transformation and rise to fame as a geisha, a fictional “memoir,” was lost in the film. Through the machinations of director Rob Marshall, “Geisha” became simply a love story ” instead of a life story.

And as a love story, it doesn’t quite work. That might be because the love Sayuri has for her benefactor, the Chairman, isn’t the kind of passionate love Westerners usually associate with romance. The two have few scenes together, and they can hardly be called sexy. In the book, Sayuri’s love is based on respect and gratitude, not chemistry. Even when the two are united at the end, it feels anticlimactic ” yes, it’s heartwarming, but it lacks the fiery lust of a Hollywood romance.

If there is one part that feels true to the book, it’s the rather abrupt pacing as the film draws to a close. Most of “Geisha” takes place during the Depression and the years following; when the book moves into the World War II years, it feels like another story altogether. While the war did mark a dramatic shift in the lives of geisha and tradition in Japan, the pacing here makes it hard to follow the lives of even the main characters. The film echoes this aspect of the book emphatically.

Despite its faults, the film is a visual masterpiece, illuminating aspects of Japanese life that Americans might not have had the knowledge to imagine in the book. And the acting of all the female characters (for this is essentially a story about women) is skillful and believable, though Hatsumomo, Mameha and Sayuri all are played by Chinese, not Japanese, actors. It’s a shame many Americans see their faces (and those of other talented Asian actors) only about twice a decade, when a film like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” crosses over or an American film like “Snow Falling on Cedars” calls for Asian characters.

The audience is left to grapple with some of the same questions raised by the novel’s discussion guides: Were geisha skilled artists choosing to live as pampered “kept women” or prostitutes, the slaves of a traditional society that sold sex to the highest bidder?

The answers are just as troubling as the question, in this case, and depend on who’s telling ” and now, watching ” the story.