“I wasn’t born to the Geisha. I was led there by the current.” So begins “Memoirs of a Geisha,” a beautifully filmed story of that current. Because the movie is so well made, it sounds unappreciative to say that watching it was a wrenchingly difficult experience, but that is just what it may be for many Americans. As hard as we may try to understand the nature of this part of the Japanese culture, it is an alien concept to many of us. But we can recognize the talent that made the movie.
The story opens with the kidnapping of two pretty young sisters who are literally snatched from the arms of their families to be deposited in the tide that leads - if one has talent and looks – to becoming a Geisha. In this case, Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo), age 9, has the right stuff; her sister doesn’t. Chiyo is entirely at the mercy of the angry, imperious Hatsumomo (Gong Li) who hands out punishment and menial chores in equal measure. There is no pleasure in this Geisha household. Taken at 9, still in slavery at 15, she lives those years in a world of women at war with each other.
As Chiyo turns fifteen, she is taken under the wing of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), rival of Hatsumono. Each of the reigning women has a protégé she is trying to train for glory in the world of Geisha. The inherent anger and competitiveness are driven inward in these women because the rules of their world are iron clad. They play by the rules even when rage is gnawing at their insides.
When a personal friendship of many years expands between Chiyo and “The Chairman”, (Ken Watanabe), we are reminded that “Geisha are never free to love.” Ken Watanabe’s lovely performance in this equation is straightforward, yet subtle, reassuring to those of us who are looking for any small reward for these girls who were yanked from home and childhood and trained so harshly for the prized culture.
The machinations of the competition are the strongest part of the film. It is clear that the Geisha is a culture – elegant in all its traditions - directed entirely toward the pleasing of men. “We sell art shows, not our bodies. We sell beauty, and to be a Geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art.” Toward this goal, they bind their feet and their waists – agony and beauty, side by side. “You are not a true Geisha unless you can stop a man in his tracks with a single look.” With this accomplished, Chiyo becomes an apprentice Geisha. Her natural beauty is hidden now. She has become a confection. She can stop men with a glance; she is a success. The aspirations, the intrigue, the customs of the culture are interesting. What keeps it from being appealing is that it seems to be built always on the power one person holds over another.
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