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The geisha, in translation

In Rob Marshall's 'Memoirs of a Geisha,' with Chinese stars and a pan-Asian cast, will some essence go missing?

March 06, 2005|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

Kyoto, Japan — Every move Komomo makes is rooted in Japanese ritual.

The way her body sinks to kneel, or how she uses just the fingertips of her right hand to slide open the wood-framed Japanese doors. The way she moves like smoke across the room on her dancer's toes.

Inside this cramped okiya, a household where aspiring geishas such as Komomo study the way dance, music and conversation can spin an enchanting mood, every action is a piece of performance art based on Japanese tales whispered down through generations.

"The dances are not just action; they are stories from our history, and you have to know that history to express it," says Koito, a retired geisha who owns the okiya and watches over Komomo with a mentor's possession. "You really have to understand Japanese culture to understand geishas."

Bottling the Japanese essence is the challenge facing American film director Rob Marshall and producer Steven Spielberg as they try to bring Arthur Golden's bestselling 1997 novel, "Memoirs of a Geisha," alive onscreen. Marshall recently finished shooting and has begun editing the estimated $85-million-budget movie, now scheduled for Christmas release.

But long before audiences have even seen a trailer, "Memoirs" has generated an underground controversy over the director's decision to cast non-Japanese actresses in the three leading geisha parts. From the opaque alleys of Kyoto's geisha districts to Internet movie chat rooms and the cast of the movie itself, the decision has created unease over what kind of footprint Hollywood will leave on this iconic element of traditional Japanese culture.

Declaring that "my only criteria was who's the best person for the role," Marshall chose China's Ziyi Zhang ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") to play Sayuri, the fictional Japanese girl snatched from her humble fishing village and taken to a Kyoto okiya where she becomes the most celebrated geisha of the 1930s.

Marshall then cast Gong Li, perhaps the most recognizable international Chinese star of her generation, as Sayuri's conniving rival, Hatsumomo. He picked Malaysian Michelle Yeoh, also of "Crouching Tiger" fame, to play the guiding mother figure, Mameha.

And he salted his vision of Japan's imperial age with supporting actors and extras from a multitude of Asian ethnicities.

The choice of a pan-Asian cast raises hard questions about the way Hollywood views the world outside America. By using Chinese actors in quintessential Japanese roles, has Marshall become the Quiet American director, an innocent abroad, shaving the edges off human diversity to produce an imagined Japan for an American audience that doesn't know the real thing?

Or is it a progressive act, as Marshall says, nothing more sinister than hiring the best-qualified actors, regardless of ethnicity, to do what actors do: act?

"Geisha is a part of Japan's eternal culture," leading Chinese director Chen Kaige ("Farewell, My Concubine") said at a symposium on Asian values at Japan's Kobe University last November. Chen has directed Gong in three movies, but he sharply criticized Marshall's decision to cast her and other non-Japanese actresses as geishas.

"Every action you make, how you walk, how you use a Japanese fan, how you treat people and what kind of facial expressions you have when you talk is going to be expressed based on your Japanese cultural sophistication," he said. "Japanese culture, as well as Chinese [culture], has something very profound which can't be easily expressed.

"For Hollywood, however, this does not matter. For them, there is no difference between Japanese and Chinese."

The studio responded to Kaige's comments by pointing out that he once expressed an interest in directing the film. Golden, the author, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

For his part, Marshall counters by saying that he is proud of what he calls "nontraditional casting."

"I'm not doing a documentary of the geisha world -- this is a fable," the director said in a phone interview during a break from editing in Culver City. "I'm very proud of an international cast. It is a celebration of the Asian community. I think it brings the world together."

Into the past

Cross-CULTURAL casting is nothing new to Hollywood. After all, Al Jolson was not just a white man in blackface. He was a Lithuanian Jew. Marshall points out that the coveted role of Scarlett O'Hara went to English rose Vivien Leigh, Egyptian Omar Sharif played the Russian Dr. Zhivago, and American Johnny Depp was perfectly credible as Scotsman J.M. Barrie last year in "Finding Neverland."

But the Chinese-Japanese relationship is significantly more fraught than the one between the United States and Scotland. The Asian neighbors share a history of invasion, occupation and brutality over the last century that has left millions dead and memories scarred.

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