It took Arthur Golden 15 years to research and write "Memoirs of a Geisha," his bestselling novel set in 1930s and '40s Japan. It didn't take quite that long for the story to make it onto the screen, though the road was long and reportedly bumpy. The casting of Chinese actresses in the principal roles caused some grumbling in Japan, just as the all-Asian cast provoked some anxiety at the studios. Both concerns feel somewhat literal-minded and misplaced, though their double-edged tension could account somewhat for the film's seeming to unfold in an Orientalist daydream rather than an actual place and time. If the book was celebrated for its meticulous attention to historical detail, the movie's heart belongs strictly to Hollywood.
Directed by Rob Marshall ("Chicago") and starring Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Gong Li and Ken Watanabe, the story arrives in a flurry of snow and pink cherry blossoms, swathed in silk and carefully powdered and primped for its march down the red carpet. An extravagant, relentlessly gorgeous melodrama, "Geisha" luxuriates in its own exquisite weepiness, emerging after a long soak as a classic Cinderella story -- a destitute but beautiful young girl named Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) survives untold hardship to become Sayuri (Zhang), the most celebrated geisha of her day.
If Golden's book lingered on the epochal tension of a subculture rooted in tradition at a time when tradition was being blasted away, the movie prefers to keep its eyes trained on the catty rivalries and casual cruelties that make up the life of a geisha-in-training.
Marshall devotes some time to the schooling and rituals, but what really piques his interest are the behind-the-scenes power struggles that leave you with the impression of having watched "Mean Girls" in kimonos.
Details get fudged to conform to Hollywood tropes and standards, so weird-looking chicks, like foreign languages (except for a prologue in Japanese), are out. Gone are the traditional stark white faces, rouged lower lips against white upper lips, shaved eyebrows repainted high on the forehead and matronly bouffants. The geishas have been sexified for Western consumption.
The movie begins with a beautiful young girl named Chiyo being sold to an okiya, or geisha house, by her impoverished fisherman father. The house is run by the crusty, pipe-smoking Mother (Kaori Momoi) and the sweet, motherly Auntie (Tsai Chin), but it's ruled by Hatsumomo (Li), a geisha-diva as beautiful as she is despised. A teahouse legend, Hatsumomo does not appear to have let the years of geisha training get to her.
At home, she skulks around in various states of dishabille, bed-hair hanging fetchingly over a single eye, snarling at everybody who gets in her way. There's a reason for the attitude: "It is not for a geisha to love!" we soon learn, but unfortunately for Hatsumomo, she already does. So, naturally, does Chiyo, from the very moment she meets the handsome Chairman (Watanabe) on a bridge and he buys her a treat. But it's not for a geisha to -- well, you already know.
The beautiful Zhang -- who here possesses a pair of startling blue eyes that have the unfortunate effect of making her look glaucomatous -- may grow up to be a superstar entertainer, but she might as well be listed on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for the ease with which she's bought and sold.
Thanks to Hatsumomo's scheming, she ends up indentured to Mother. She's then leased by the famous Mameha (Yeoh), another famous geisha with long, flowing hair, a sphinx-y smile and a cunning, sexual-political agenda.
Playing Glinda to Hatsumomo's Wicked Witch of the East, Mameha decides to help Sayuri take the place of Hatsumomo at Mother's okiya, so that peace may come to the geishas of Gion. So she gets to work transforming Chiyo into Sayuri, auctioning off her virginity and promoting her as a consort to the gruff and disfigured Nobu (Koji Yakusho).
Rather than explore the tension between the geishas' public role as highly controlled, highly stylized "ideal women" and their personal desires, Marshall gives us three desperate teahouse "nocturnal wives," suffering one exquisite torment after another.
A scene in which Sayuri is prepped for her teahouse debut is accompanied by warpath music. Beauty, as we're continually reminded, is pain.
But then pain is beauty, and as "Geisha" swoons and flutters over every betrayal, near-miss and emotional torture that make up Sayuri's life, it's hard not to get swept up in the exquisite torment of it all. Besides, as my viewing companion remarked later, you put all those crazy women in one rice-paper house, emotions are bound to run high.