Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Memoirs of a Geisha

Drama, Running Time: 145 minutes
Starring: Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe and Michelle Yeoh
Produced by: Lucy Fisher, Steven Spielberg and Douglas Wick

Arthur Golden’s bestselling novel Memoirs of a Geisha was brought to the big screen by Rob Marshall in 2005. It is a sumptuous, absorbing story of a strange world, set amidst the tea houses of Kyoto that depicts Geisha’s as a canvas displaying ‘moving art’, eliciting lust, yet forbidden from falling in love. The Geisha’s exude a delicate charm conveyed by the way they hold themselves, walk, talk and even the way they eat, graceful lifting their bowls of noodles and soup close up to their mouths, eating without slurping, slowly and delicately, contrasting mainstream Japanese culture that eats in a raucous, brazen manner.

Set in 1929, Japan the film unfolds in a remote fishing village telling the agonising tale of Chiyo (Ziyi Zhang) sold to an okiya (geisha house). Her intriguing bright blue eyes paired with childhood innocence become the instant source of jealousy and attention, threatening Hatsumomo, the cold, calculating geisha sabotages Chiyo’s chances of becoming a geisha and Chiyo becomes her personal servant.

Only a little girl, Chiyo’s frustration spills out in the form of tears standing on the bridge in the city centre, the turning point in the film. She is comforted by the Chairman, (Ken Watanabe) a rich business man who takes the time to ask her about her troubles, buys her a cup of shaved ice with cherry sauce. Having had her childhood pulled treacherously from her, Chiyo is touched by this kind act and in that moment they are mesmerised by each other, the Chairman enraptured by her striking beauty and intense eyes. Chiyo keeps his handkerchief as a reminder and gives the money wrapped inside as an offering to God, praying to become a Geisha.“From that moment on when I make tea, pour sake, dance, tie my obi, it would be for the Chairman – until I find him, until I am his.”

The giving and receiving of food are employed at various junctures in the movie as subtle devices of symbolism. Chiyo resumes her dream to becoming a Geisha thanks to the Chairman’s watchful role, her name is changed to Sayuri and as a maiko (apprentice geisha), she realises her life has turned into a game, a series of twists and turns taking her deeper into the dark realm of Geishas, a world shrouded in mystery. Rivalling Hatsumomo, we witness Chiyo’s transformation into Sayuri; learning the rigorous arts of the geisha: dance and music; wearing kimono, elaborate makeup, and hair as well as the tea ceremony and pouring sake to reveal just a touch of inner wrist.

As a maiko Sayuri attracts incredible admiration and acclaim from male solicitors including the Chairman, rekindling feelings from that first meeting and the shaved ice. To attain full Geisha status one must sell her mizuage (virginity) and does so by presenting patrons with rice cakes, again another food as symbolism to connote that bids may be placed. Sayuri racks up the highest bid to have ever been made, 15,000 Yen, enraging Hatsumomo, to spread vicious rumours tainting her reputation. Food becomes an analogy: “Who wants a plum when someone has already had a bite?”

Upsetting the Geisha’s precise, peculiar way of life, the war brings American GI’s and Western influence to Japan; food used as a tool to indicate identities and signify the disparity between cultures and morals. Whisky replaces sake; Geisha’s began to work the rice fields instead of entertaining, while any woman donned a kimono calling herself Geisha, cigarettes embellishing them instead of fans, loose lips and lewd talk replacing the art of carefully crafted conversation. In this way Sayuri and the Chairman are separated for another ten long years until they are re-united once again, this time they wasting no time in expressing their true love for one another.
The movie tells the memoirs that are far from that of an empress or a queen but the life of a Geisha, a real portrayal of a once-upon-a-time entertaining goddess in a bygone era that faded away not so very long ago.

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