Memoirs of a Geisha - A Beautiful, Yet Unfinished Cinematic Painting

Since the beginning of popular cinema, literature has always been a classic source for material, story, theme, and character. The Bible, for example, has spawned countless silver-screen versions, spanning the era of D.W. Griffith's 'Intolerance,' Charleton Heston as Moses in 'The Ten Commandments,' and most recently, Mel Gibson's highly controversial Jesus flick, 'The Passion of the Christ.'  

Like most film adaptations of books, however, 'Memoirs of a Geisha' is certainly an example of the numerous instances where the screen version in no way equals its literary counterpart.  Though the cinematography and other artistic direction remain commendable, rich, and flowery, and most of the performances are strong, 'Memoirs of a Geisha' suffers from a poor script adaptation, including inadequate character development, and poor direction.  Most importantly, it seems to lack the lyricism evoked from the popular novel, written by Arthur Golden, and feels out of place as an Eastern film clearly being turned Western by its filmmakers. 

Sayuri (Zhang) charms the Chairman (Watanabe).

Chiyo (Ziyi Zhang) is a nine-year-old girl who lives in a small Japanese village with her sister Satsu, older father, and ailing mother.  In an attempt to better care for his wife, the father sells his two daughters into the guarded world of geisha, where the two sisters are separated and forced to lives of servitude, or, in Satsu's case, prostitution.  The only thing saving Chiyo from a similar fate is her uncommon beauty, and a particularly remarkable pair of blue eyes that seem to spark the jealousy of her new home's primary breadwinner, the beautiful geisha Hatsummomo (Gong Li).  Seeing Chiyo as a threat to inheriting the okiya where they all live and work, Hatsummomo goes out of her way to make the poor girl's life as wretched as possible, while training her friend, Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh), as her apprentice 'little sister' in the ways of a geisha.

After a series of attempted escapes, and through Hatsummomo's cruelty, Chiyo is forbidden to attend school to learn the art of geisha, and is forced to become a slave to her okiya forever.  As fate would have it though, a chain of events occur, destined to change Chiyo's life forever with chance meeting of the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), a rich aristocrat.  Completely taken with his charm and kindness, Chiyo is motivated to become a geisha again in an attempt to meet with him once more.

Sayuri (Zhang) mourns the loss of her freedom

Soon afterward, Hatsummo's geisha rival, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), graciously decides to take Chiyo as her 'little sister,' and brings little Chiyo into the world of geisha where she must pay off her debts after six months, or face ruin.  Taking on the geisha name 'Sayuri,' this soon-to-be most sought-after geisha in all of Kyoto once again runs into the Chairman, but finds that there is a much higher price to the life she leads than simply repaying financial debt' freedom and happiness.

The one thing that 'Memoirs of a Geisha' really has to its credit, and something that could be long ago recognized in previews and trailers, is its fantastic cinematography.  Though a bit too dark in an attempt to mimic the typically lantern-lit period, cameraman Dion Beebe, ASC does a spectacular job at following his characters closely, and piercing deeply enough into the faces of those on-screen to expose their deepest, verbally un-communicated emotions to the audience. 

Mameha (Yeoh) brings Sayuri (Zhang) out for her apprentice debut.

Adding to the supremacy of the artistic direction for 'Memoirs,' the set and costume design are probably the most commendable elements in the entire film.  Though poor direction prevented Beebe from lingering too long on his images so the audience could gain full appreciation of these elements, the brilliant scenery and carefully crafted kimono costumes really strike the eye and imagination with their full and vibrant coloring.  More attention really should have been paid to this brilliant and outstanding aspect of Japanese culture and art, but what little insight we get into the traditional architecture and costume of the period is at least enough to satiate the audience's appetite for eye candy.

Speaking of which' the film plays host to a beautiful cast of talented performers (strangely enough, most of them Chinese depicting Japanese characters), including 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' alumns Michelle Yeoh and the striking Ziyi Zhang.  Though all are a bit difficult to understand over the own ethnic accents, their facial expressions are more than enough to communicate the deep sense of unspoken emotion needed to draw the audience into their plight.  Zhang and Watanabe in particular, star-crossed in a love forbidden to exist, say to each other in their casual, quick glances their yearning for each other, while keeping their true feelings masked from a society that would hardly be accepting of the match. 

Sayuri (Zhang) plays the coveted lead in a Japanese dance performance.

Yeoh gives the mature and elegant performance you would expect of her, beautiful and delicate as the geisha of the period were meant to be.  Unfortunately, Li is sorely underused, reduced by the screenplay to nothing more than a series of scowling and pouting.  A star in her home country of China, it is a shame that American audiences could not be privy to the equal brilliance of her performances in this rare American exposure.  

As a discredit to the film, while it's understandable that a certain amount of deviation from its literary source would be needed to turn a novel into a two-hour movie, the choices made by screenwriter Robin Swicord are hardly justifiable.  Known for her much better literary adaptations, such as 'Little Women' and 'Matilda,' Swicord makes some horrible missteps in deciding which parts of 'Geisha' she wants to use in the filmic version, which to omit, and which to merely fabricate.  One of her largest sins, however, is making the script move so quickly, and making each of the characters so ambivalent throughout most of the film, that she fails to create and real sense of connection between the audience and her characters,  often pushing the audience into a scene or situation taken out of context.  To the great disappointment of those unfamiliar with the book, only those who have read the Arthur Golden masterpiece will be truly 'in the know' of what's going on. 

Hatsummomo (Li) is sorely underused, most of her expressions merely a series of scowls and pouts.

Of particular note is Swicord's near demonization of the character Nobu (Koji Yakusho), who, while undeniably 'rough' in the book, remains a sympathetic character whom Sayuri genuinely feels tenderness toward, even though her feelings are unromantic.   The film makes him out to be some sort of perverted older man, eager to win the affections of someone who is only fifteen-years-old when they first meet.  While this might not be of particular interest to those unfamiliar with the novel, highlighting this character's change in demeanor further shows Swicord's lack of respect for the beauty of each character, and how their interactions affect each other.

Poor direction also pulls 'Memoirs' away from the Academy Award-winning 'Best Picture' nomination this film should be eligible for, but will probably miss.  While the film is not ultimately damaged in the long run, Rob Marshall, best known for his work on the 2002 Oscar-sweeper, 'Chicago,' is certainly a detraction from what this film could have been under the more Eastern of eye of someone like Ang Lee.  Marshall's distinctly Western perspective drains the art out of this film that should have been there' the lyrical feeling from the novel that should have been painted on screen. 

The Chairman (Watanabe) offers safe haven to Sayuri (Zhang) during the war.

Rather than remaining static to absorb the minute details of a scene, or the beauty of his characters and the story, Marshall seems to choreograph his actors to the camera.  While creating an interesting affect for a film like 'Chicago,' the style feels foreign to a traditional film like 'Memoirs.'  This movie required the subtlety in camera movement of a paintbrush.  Instead, we get a paint-by-number.

In what will be remembered primarily for its artistic direction and strong performances over its actual script and direction, 'Memoirs of a Geisha' feels like a half-finished painting of something of more demanding grandeur.    While at least capturing to an extent the reality of the period' geisha Japan, both pre and post-World War II' there is a lyricism missing in this love story that completely fills the heart of a reader that it simply does not achieve in the eyes of a filmgoer.  Lacking emotional investment and a true Eastern sense, 'Memoirs of a Geisha' remains about as beautiful as a painting, but poor direction and script adaptation fail to bring to life what the camera promises it should.   

The disfigured Nobu (Yakusho) is unfairly demonized in this film.

'Memoirs of a Geisha' is currently open in limited release, and will hit theaters nation-wide December 23, 2005.  To learn more, visit

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