ByAlex Leptos, writer at
Films from across the globe that may have slipped under your radar. With a dose of horror and pro-wrestling. Instagram: @alexleptos_art
Alex Leptos

With the recent news of Mary Poppins Returns getting an official release date of December 2018, I invite you to take a look a back at one of director Rob Marshall's previous films, 2005's Memoirs of a Geisha. Memoirs of a Geisha is based on the 1997 novel of the same name by Arthur Golden.

It tells the story of Chiyo Sakamoto, who is taken from her poverty stricken village at the age of just 9 along with her older sister Satsu and sold by her parents to an Okiya (geisha boarding house) in Gion. Upon arrival, Satsu is considered the 'less attractive one' and is not sold to the okiya. She is instead forced into becoming a prostitute in Kyoto's pleasure district. The film follows Chiyo through her life in the okiya from the difficulties of her beginnings as a child to becoming a Geisha in her adulthood, taking on the name Sayuri Nitta.

A young Chiyo, portrayed by Suzuka Ohgo.
A young Chiyo, portrayed by Suzuka Ohgo.

Here is the trailer:

Geisha Of Gion.

While the story is based around Geisha in Japan around the time of World War II, both the book and film are often criticized for being riddled with inaccuracies, particularly in terms of geisha practices and stereotypes. If like me, you've seen a good amount of Japanese and Chinese films and/or television, or read up on geisha practices, then you'll notice how westernized this is; playing out a lot like other American produced films that we've seen before. There's the pretty new girl, the others that feel threatened by her and of course, the love story that brings it all together. So don't go into this expecting a factual movie- at least not completely.

Whilst writing the novel, Arthur Golden interviewed several geisha as background research; one of whom was Minkeo Iwasaki. Iwasaki was Japan's most famous Geiko during the 1970s and early 80s, and retired suddenly at the height of her fame at the age of 29. Following the book's release, Iwasaki publically spoke out about it's inaccuracies and how her accounts were twisted for dramatic purposes. This led to a lawsuit and Mineko Iwasaki writing her own book, that acted as an autobiography concerning her life as a geisha and the effects it had on her public life before, during and after.

It was released as Geisha, A Life in the U.S and Geisha of Gion in the U.K and became a worldwide bestseller.

Memoirs of a Geisha is essentially a work of fiction inspired by historical accounts. It isn't so much about geisha practices but more a dramatic story about coming of age and general life. The idea of loss plays a large part and so do jealousy of forgiveness.

China's Finest Actors.

Another point of controversy was in regards to casting. Despite the film bring set in Japan, most of the actors cast are Chinese. The three lead roles were portrayed by Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li, three of China's finest actors. Ziyi and Yeoh previously starred together in the hugely successful martial arts flick, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and both have had success in English speaking films. Gong Li, who rose to prominence in 1991 in the Chinese film Raise the Red Lantern, has since enjoyed great success in Chinese language films such as multi-award winning Breaking the Silence (2000) and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006).

Gong Li as Hatsumomo
Gong Li as Hatsumomo

In defence of the film's casting, Zhang Ziyi spoke:

"A director is only interested in casting someone he believes is appropriate for a role. For instance, my character had to go from age 15 to 35; she had to be able to dance, and she had to be able to act, so he needed someone who could do all that. I also think that regardless of whether someone is Japanese or Chinese or Korean, we all would have had to learn what it is to be a geisha, because almost nobody today knows what that means—not even the Japanese actors on the film.

Geisha was not meant to be a documentary. I remember seeing in the Chinese newspaper a piece that said we had only spent six weeks to learn everything and that that was not respectful toward the culture. It's like saying that if you're playing a mugger, you have to rob a certain number of people. To my mind, what this issue is all about, though, is the intense historical problems between China and Japan. The whole subject is a land mine. Maybe one of the reasons people made such a fuss about Geisha was that they were looking for a way to vent their anger."

Regardless, The whole cast played tremendously well. Zhang Ziyi plays at first a timid and quiet character, just trying to fit in and find her place whilst the other apprentices in the house become increasingly threatened by her; particularly Hatsumomo (Gong Li). Hatsumomo is the okiya's only working geisha and is famous for her beauty. She is revealed to be cruel and jealous and views Chiyo as a potential rival due to her striking bluish-grey eyes; going out of her way to make her life miserable.

Chiyo later attempts to escape the house and run away with her sister (Samantha Futerman) and as a result, the house mother discontinues her geisha training. Following an encounter with the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) and his geisha companions, where he buys her a dessert and gives her some money; Chiyo is inspired by his act of kindness, and decides to become a geisha so that she may one day become a part of the Chairman's life. She comes under the tutelage of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), one of Gion's most successful geishas and long time rival of Hatsumomo. There really isn't much I need to say about Michelle Yeoh; I mean, she's great. She's always great. Yeoh plays the knowledgeable veteran badass perfectly as usual.

Other cast includes Kaori Momoi as the take no shit Okaasan/ Mother of the okiya. and Youki Kudoh and Zoe Weizenbaum as young and older Pumpkin, respectively; another young girl in the okiya whom Chiyo befriends.


As mentioned before, the themes of loss, jealousy and forgiveness play a large role in Memoirs. As does the ability to see a situation from another's point of view. (Spoilers ahead).

Sayuri (Chiyo) models the ability to see from another’s angle. This is evident in two scenes in particular. One is after a fight with Hotsumomo which results in her being banished from the okiya. Sayuri realizes that Hostumomo has also suffered loss and wonders if she is "looking into my own future"; If she could perhaps be on a path to also become bitter like her. In that moment of understanding, Sayuri realizes that she must forgive Hotsumomo and in doing so leads us to see her not as the villain that she initially seemed to be.

Similarly, when Pumpkin gets her revenge against Sayuri near the end of the film. It appears to be an act of jealousy as Pumpkin causes Sayuri's loss of the chairman and says that Sayuri caused her the loss of "the thing I wanted most in life"- referring to Sayuri's acceptance of Mother's proposal to become heir to head of the geisha house, and now she has taken something from her. Both Sayuri and the audience are able to understand the magnitude of her loss and she avoids gaining the status of a petty villain.


Memoirs of a Geisha also boasts some absolutely stunning visuals and cinematography. The geisha performances presented here are more 'epic' and theatrical than they traditionally are, seemingly drawing inspiration from Kabuki theatre. In particular, the snow dance in Memoirs, which is arguably the most visually striking and mesmerizing part of the film, shares similarities to dance in the frequently performed Noh play, Yamanba. You can see it below as performed by Bando Tamasaburo, along with the snow dance from Memoirs. In addition, the sets and costumes are on par with the best East Asian cinema.

The Sounds Of Japan.

The film's soundtrack is by multi-award winning and acclaimed composer, John Williams- who has produced some of the most memorable film score in movie history. His musical credits include Jaws, the Star Wars series, Superman, the Indiana Jones series, E.T, Jurassic Park, and the first three Harry Potter films.

The soundtrack for Memoirs gives us a blend of epic Hollywood sounds and incorporation of traditional Japanese folk. It's beautiful, emotional and sometimes haunting.


Memoirs of a Geisha went on to win multiple awards for it's direction, cinematography, costume design and music, which included three Academy Awards; along with further nominations for it's performances including a Golden Globe nomination for Zhang Ziyi for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama and a win for Gong Li for Best Supporting Actress by the National Board of Review.

Despite it's inaccuracies, Memoirs of a Geisha is a beautifully crafted, visually stunning, masterfully acted and thought provoking piece of cinema that I seriously need to get on DVD. Like I said before, If you are a fan of Chinese and Japanese cinema and culture, remember that this is a Westernized film and a fictionalized portrayal of life as a geisha in the early Twentieth century. At it's core, it plays out a little like a soap opera; take it for what it is and you'll have a good time. If you want a factual work about the life of geisha, seek out Mineko Iwasaki's book, Geisha of Gion (UK) or Geisha, A Life (USA) I haven't read it yet but it's on my shelf ready for when I finish my current book!

What do you think of Memoirs of a Geisha?


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