In the late 1920’s two young girls from rural Japan are sold by their father into indentured servitude because their mother is dying and he cannot care for them. A middle-man takes the girls to a town near Osaka, a major industrial center. One girl, the nine-year old, blue-eyed Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) is left at one house of Geisha, the sister at another. The “mother” or owner of Chiyo’s house notices Chiyo's blue eyes and says she sees much water in them - something that turns out to be true. She decides to send Chiyo and Pumpkin (Zoe Weizenbaum), another young girl, to a school to train to be Geisha. But Chiyo goes out at night to try and find her sister and is beaten when she returns. Mother makes her a servant to the house instead; Chiyo’s debt to the house mounts with each infration.
There is a Geisha in the house who persecutes Chiyo. Her name is Hatsumono (Li Gong), and she is threatened by Chiyo from the day she arrives.
One day when Chiyo is sitting on a bridge, crying for her sister, a man, accompanied by a Geisha, is kind to her. He gives her his handkerchief and buys her a sweet ice. The Geisha calls him Mr. Chairman (Ken Watanabe), and Chiyo determines that one day she will accompany him. It becomes her life’s ambition to gain him as her patron.
The Geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) comes to Mother one day when Chiyo is about 16, and proposes that if she can get top price for Chiyo’s virginity, that both Mameha and Chiyo will be free. Mother agrees to the deal, and Mameha becomes Chiyo’s mentor and gives her a new name, Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang). All of a sudden, Sayuri must learn to be a Geisha in a matter of months rather than years. At her debut, Mameha takes her to a sumo match and introduces her to none other than The Chairman and his business partner Nabu (Koji Yakusho). Mameha insists that Sayuri get the attention of Nabu, who has a scarred face, so that Hatsumono, who is also present, will not find more reasons to spread lies about Sayuri and lower her value. The Chairman recognizes Sayuri but out of friendship for Nabu, lets her go. For Sayuri, the Chairman’s handkerchief is her lifeline to freedom.
This is really only the set-up for the main part of the film which is about Sayuri becoming a Geisha, and the conflict she must live with: her own desires for life, wanting to be with the Chairman, and the cultural constraints of her only option for survival as a Geisha, or as a prostitute if she were to ever run away from the house that protects her.
Based on the best-selling novel by Arthur Golden and directed by Chicago’s Rob Marshall, Memoirs of a Geisha is a beautifully rendered film, filled with pathos, female ambition, cat-fighting, betrayal, and revenge - a hard world of women who powdered their faces to hide their faces, their real selves. The film teaches the audience about what it means to be a Geisha, a word that means art. Geishas were well educated and highly cultured young women who entertained married men; to find one as a patron was the ultimate security since this would give the Geisha an income for her house and a place to live out her life. Geishas, at least before World War II, were not prostitutes although losing their virginity to the highest bidder was their entrée into a culture of kept women who would only ever be “half wives.”
The film finishes before the novel does, which ends with Sayuri in New York. After viewing this beautiful film for 90 minutes or so the American soldiers who occupy Japan after World War II enter the picture and their rowdy, crass behavior clashes so badly with the refined tone of the film (as it is supposed to do) that I felt like someone was scraping their fingernails on a blackboard. Extremely effective.
Most film reviewers have already commented on the fact that most of the actors are not Japanese; unfortunately, most of us will not notice. What we do notice, however, is the fine, nuanced, felt performances of all the actors. Also, Arthur Golden is a man and not Japanese either and we wonder how he is an authority on this subject. I cannot answer that; but I did read the book a few years ago, and I think the film interprets it very, very well.
In a culture, in a world and moral universe that is far away, women in bondage struggled for freedom in any way they could. This film made me pray that women of all cultures be free to choose their own destinies, rather than only those made available to them by cultures controlled by men.