Long before Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha" became a bestselling novel and a Hollywood movie, the Japanese geisha was an intriguing and enigmatic subject. Now along comes "Hannari: Geisha Modern," a documentary that examines contemporary geishas at work and in training.
Written and directed by Miyuki Sohara, "Hannari" focuses, like Golden's book, on Kyoto's geisha subculture. But while his novel took place in the period leading up to World War II, "Hannari" examines modern-day geishas, or geikos, as the performance artists are known. Dating from the 15th century, the geisha is a curious anachronism: a heavily made-up, elaborately garbed female entertainer who spends years in training. When she's not dancing onstage or reenacting a traditional folk tale, the geisha will wait on customers in ochayas, or teahouses. Though thousands of geishas were employed around 1900, narrator Maxwell Caulfield notes, only about 300 work in Kyoto today.
Thematically all over the map -- without any chosen route or evident destination -- "Hannari" offers extensive footage of geishas in training; the okiyas or boardinghouses where the maikos or junior geikos, are groomed; and most interesting, the artisans who painstakingly craft the geisha's 20-pound costume and hand-painted accessories. Sohara had remarkable access to the closed-door community: Interviews take place with geishas young and old, and a significant portion of the film documents theatrical performances, which are probably more engaging in person but come off as leaden on screen.