Painted smiles

Memoirs of a Geisha

Ziyi Zhang will never go hungry again.

Ziyi Zhang will never go hungry again.

Rated 5.0

Director Rob Marshall’s film of Arthur Golden’s best-selling novel Memoirs of a Geisha is an elegant and engrossing fable that weaves a heady, sensuous spell, enveloping us in its exotic trappings even as the story it tells has the familiar elements of fairy tales and popular culture. I haven’t read Golden’s novel, and I have only an educated Westerner’s understanding of geisha culture, so an evaluation from either of those two angles is necessarily beyond the scope of this review. But as a sheer piece of moviemaking, Geisha is compelling for every one of its 137 minutes. It’s one of the best movies of the year, proof—if any was needed—that Marshall’s feature debut with Chicago was no fluke.

The story opens in 1920s Japan. It begins in panic and confusion that has us wondering what is happening, a feeling we share with the movie’s protagonist, a 9-year-old peasant girl named Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo). When Chiyo is sold into bondage, along with her older sister, by their impoverished fisherman father, Chiyo is taken in as a serving girl in an okiya, or geisha household. Her older sister, meanwhile, is forced into prostitution, and after one escape attempt that comes to nothing, Chiyo will never see her sister again. Chiyo becomes the lowliest drudge in the okiya, but her budding beauty arouses the interest of “Mother” (Kaori Momoi), mistress of the house, and the jealousy of Hatsumomo (a slyly catty Gong Li), the house’s reigning geisha.

Chiyo eventually comes under the wing of a rival named Mameha (Michelle Yeoh, stately and gracious), who undertakes to train her in the intricate and demanding discipline of the geisha. As Chiyo grows to maturity and becomes the geisha Sayuri (played with courtly allure by Ziyi Zhang), she’s both a pawn and a player in a complicated game of maneuvers among Mother; Mameha; Hatsumomo; and Hatsumomo’s protégé, Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh), formerly Chiyo’s best friend but now Sayuri’s rival—just as Mameha and Hatsumomo themselves are rivals.

Through all this, Chiyo/Sayuri cherishes a hopeless love for a gentleman known only as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), who once showed her kindness as a child. As Sayuri, she finds favor in the eyes of the Chairman’s friend Nobu (Koji Yakusho) and remains close to both of them as the cataclysm of World War II turns their world inside out—and as the postwar American occupation changes their relationships in unforeseeable ways.

The plot of Geisha is, oddly enough, reminiscent of Gone with the Wind, with Sayuri as Scarlett O’Hara. And, on that level, the movie romanticizes prewar Japan in much the same way Gone with the Wind romanticized the Old South. (We are told, for example, that Nobu’s disfigured face came from “fighting in Manchuria,” but what he was doing in Manchuria in the first place remains tactfully unmentioned.) At the same time, on an even more primal and mythic level, Chiyo/Sayuri is both Cinderella and Snow White, with Mameha as her Fairy Godmother, the Chairman as Prince Charming, and Hatsumomo as both the cruel stepsister and the wicked queen, jealous that Sayuri is becoming the fairest in the land.

Whether or not this is all as implicit in Golden’s novel as it is in Robin Swicord’s supple screenplay, these familiar echoes give the movie universal underpinnings that anchor us as we drift in the often-mysterious geisha culture. We may not always grasp the subtle distinctions between a geisha and what we in the West would call a paid escort, but the movie describes a confluence of art and business in which a woman’s most valuable commodities are her grace and beauty, and that’s something almost anyone (especially those who make and watch movies, another confluence of art and business) can understand.

It may be that by portraying Sayuri’s life in these terms, the movie oversimplifies or misrepresents the geisha lifestyle, but, frankly, that’s something for cultural anthropologists to argue about. On its own terms, Memoirs of a Geisha is grand entertainment, telling its epic story in bold yet graceful terms without ever descending to melodrama or soap opera.