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Facts of a geisha

Can any movie do justice to the book it is based on? While Hollywood script-writers seem to have a hard time following books’ storylines accurately, the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, based on the novel by Arthur Golden, comes pretty close. Set in the heart of the Gion district of Japan, in Kyoto, the movie is able to capture the essence of Japan in the 1930s. Rob Marshall, a Carnegie Mellon University alum and director of Memoirs, does a spectacular job of depicting the world through the eyes of a geisha.

Both the book and the movie, however, continue to be surrounded by controversy. Whether it’s the fact that Chinese actors were used instead of Japanese actors, or the allegation that Golden misrepresented sacred rituals, Memoirs of a Geisha has been a much-debated topic.

“A story like mine has never been told,” begins Chiyo, a poor fisherman’s daughter. She is about to be sold into a life of servitude: the life of a geisha. The movie thereafter follows the struggles faced by Chiyo, renamed Sayuri, in her journey to become a geisha. The movie succeeds in stunning the audience with its opulent expression of 1930s Japan. Marshall fills the movie with vivid images and subtle yet powerful descriptions of Japanese culture. The intense score by John Williams and heart-rending cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma add to the soundtrack and help to make this a movie worth watching.

So the movie does justice to the book, but does the book do justice to the history it references? Both the book and the movie go to great lengths to convince the audience that geisha are, by Japanese tradition, artists and entertainers, but not sex objects. However, this image is contradicted when Sayuri’s virginity is sold to the highest bidder. In reality, mizuage — the sale of a debutante geisha’s virginity — is an unmentionable topic that real-life geisha would consider inappropriate to talk about in public. The inadequate depiction of this sacred ritual infuriated the geisha community of Japan.

In the course of researching for his book, Golden spoke to several geisha, including Mineko Iwasaki, whom he thanked profusely in his book. However, five years after the book’s publication, Iwasaki sued Golden for libel. According to Iwasaki, Golden had grossly misunderstood the rite of mizuage, which was merely a celebration of the coming of age of a geisha and not some auction of virginity, as depicted in Golden’s book. Iwasaki went on to say that when a geisha came of age, she required new and costly kimonos and hairstyles. These things may have been financed by a patron, but the geisha’s virginity was never for sale. While Iwasaki speaks with conviction, one wonders why it took her so long to object to Golden’s book. And given this, could the rite of mizuage actually be what Golden claims it is?

It cannot be denied that both the movie and the book are exaggerated on many levels. Golden is the first to admit that he may have gotten a lot of the details wrong, and confesses that a book of facts would be unable to capture the nuances of the lives led by geisha. After all, it is a work of fiction.

In his lecture at Carnegie Lecture Hall last Monday, Golden helped to dispel some of the myths not only about his book but also about the lives of geisha. He said that he wanted to include as many facts of Japanese life as he could, and that in doing so he may have overlooked something important or included something not entirely correct. When asked about the controversy surrounding mizuage, Golden said that he had described it to the best of his ability on the basis of what the geisha told him. Golden did admit that mizuage was never actually discussed out loud. According to Golden, the only reason he has Sayuri and her mentor, Mameha, discuss it in the book is because he had no other way of relating the gist of the ritual to the audience. Golden refused to comment on the subject of the lawsuit against him.

As in most book-to-film transitions, the movie is unable to depict some of the finer details not only of Sayuri’s character, but also of her life. In the book, Golden talks about many rites and rituals of a geisha’s life which are not included in the movie. Furthermore, the movie skims over the details of Sayuri’s childhood and does not convey the horror faced by geisha in their youth.

The misrepresentations in both the book and the movie cannot be avoided, but they do not stop anyone from enjoying the film. It should be taken for what it is: a work of fiction, purely for entertainment purposes. Neither Rob Marshall nor Arthur Golden claims to be representing actual fact or historical events, so discrepancies may certainly be considered artistic license on their part. Even though it may not perfectly depict the life of a geisha, it builds for us an image of an alluring world that we would have never otherwise seen.

Anna Ahmed | Junior Staffwriter