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Thursday, December 29th, 2005

Time Event
12:24p
Memoirs of a Geisha
Last night, we went out to see "Memoirs of a Geisha," based on the popular novel by Arthur Golden. I have read the novel, Georgie has not, but we both found the movie to be very good, and better than most critics reported. (Unfavorable reviews vary widely as to reasons, so it is much a matter of taste, one thinks--. A recurring theme is that the filem is "westernized" including a compalint that everyone "speaks English." Hello? It's being produced for a Western audience--.) The adaptation was not without its controversies, including that the three major roles are played by non-Japanese. Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li are Chinese, and Michelle Yeoh is ethnically Chinese, although born in Malaya--a definite affront factor to Japan, particularly with the recent tension between the two countries over World War II apologies. Be that as it may, the supporting cast is thouroughly Japanese and shows no sign of having difficulty working with the stars. The three major womwn are wonderful, but let them look to their laurels as newcomer Suzuka Ohgo comes up. She carries the first portion of the film playing young Chiyo, who grows up to be the famous geisha Sayuri (Zhang). Suzuka is marvellously expressive and appealing young actress and I think audiences will see more of her. Zhang Ziyi doesn't really resemble a grown-up version of Suzuka, but the wealth of expression makes you believe it is the same character. Zhang can change her face amazingly in the tradition of the best actors, and looks quite a different person when she is at her geisha height as opposed to when she is living rough in the hinterlands during the war, and not just because of the mask-like geisha makeup. Her Chinese opera training stands her in good stead in her scenes of dancing, particualry the crucial winter dance. It seems as though Gong Li, long the heroine queen of Chinese cinema, enjoys playing the "wicked stepsister" role of Hatsumomo, in which she switches from languidly seductive to terrifying in a moment. (The one thing that does not ring true is when people tease Hatsumomo about getting "old". Ms. Gong's ivory beauty shows neither line nor wrinkle--.) And you can easily believe that Michelle Yeoh, with her elegant features and graceful carriage, could easily have commanded record fees as the regal Mameha, who coaches Chiyo/Sayuri to geisha fame.

There were excellent supporting performances by Kaori Momoi as the owner of Hatsumomo and Sayuri's geisha house, and Youki Koudo, as "Pumpkin," Sayuri's geisha "sister." Ken Watanabe as the "Chairman" has little to do but be charming as the (mostly) distant object of Sayuri's desire, and in fact his performance is quite overshadowed by that of Koji Yashuko as the passionate and tragic Nobu. A Wisconsin connection: Randall Duk Kim, one of the founders of our American Players Theatre, has a small but important role as "Dr. Crab".

A beautiful movie to look at, as well. Director Rob Marshall seems to have captured a Japanese sensibilty in scene and image, even when showing us the rarely seen mileu of pre-war Japan, where business suits and flapper frocks are already replacing the traditional kimono--at least outside the geisha world. The intrusion of American GI's after the war does indeed seem rough and shocking, as it must have seemed to those who were there.

One wonders what it would be like if our culture had the contemplation and creation of beauty as a real value, instead of thinking of beauty as a side-effect, a luxury, or merely an attribute to be lusted after. Make no mistake, I would not change our society even for modern Japan, where rigid adherence to heirarchy and "rules" is still in practice. And Japan's sexual mores, although perhaps more sensible than ours in some ways, are "icky" in others: for example, Constitutionally, the age of consent there is 13 (although individual prefectures can and have raised it)--which makes schoolgirl erotica more understandable, but still unpleasant to this eye. Ditto the repressive customs (in both worlds) that drive women to seek male "protectors". Geisha, as the story points out, do not consider themselves prostitutes or courtesans, but on the other hand, a junior geisha cannot be a full geisha until she has literally auctioned her virginity to the highest bidder, and to be truly successful, she will have to accquire a "danna"--what we in the West would vulgarly call a "sugar daddy." These are some of the secrets disclosed that initally drew Golden's book much criticism from the direction of Japan, but which are sensitively handled on film.

The film adapts Golden's novel well as far as it goes, but ends with Sayuri getting her danna, and does not cover their long relationship as the book does.

A beautiful and dramatic biographical movie. Leave the impatient and the adolescent at home.

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