Sony // 2005 // 125 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // April 3rd, 2006
Sayuri: "In that moment, I changed from a girl facing nothing but emptiness, to someone with purpose. I saw that to be a geisha could be a stepping stone to something else...a place in the world."
Memoirs of a Geisha is an adaptation of Arthur Golden's 1997 mega-bestseller. It's also director Rob Marshall's follow-up to his best-picture winning Chicago. With this kind of pedigree, how can the movie not be fantastic?
The year is 1929. Young Chiyo (Zhang Ziyi, House of Flying Daggers) and her sister are sold into bondage at a Kyoto fish market by their recently widowed father. Both girls are acquired by geisha houses, and both attempt escape. While her sister manages to disappear into the Japanese countryside, Chiyo nearly kills herself falling off the roof. For her impertinence she falls into the bad graces of Mother (Kaori Momoi), the owner of the geisha house. Instead of learning the artistry of the geisha, Chiyo seems destined for a life of manual labor and beatings with the bamboo shoot.
That is, until she is rescued by the beautiful Memeha (Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Memeha is one of the most successful geishas in Kyoto and she quickly sees promise in Chiyo's soft features and gimlet gray eyes. She convinces Mother to release Chiyo from her bondage, and mentors the young girl in the ways of the geisha. In short time, Chiyo becomes the most popular geisha in Kyoto and is renamed Sayori.
Sayori has many suitors, but also enemies. Chief among the latter is Hatsumomo (Gong Li, Ju Dou), an established Geisha who is violently jealous of Sayori's nascent success. Among her many suitors are the Chairman (Ken Watanabe, The Last Samurai), a charming businessman she has been enamored with since she was a child, and Nobu (Koji Yakusho), a gruff former soldier who was badly wounded in war. Not surprisingly, Sayori prefers the company of the Chairman. Also not surprising, Hatsumomo will do everything in her power to keep them apart.
The overriding impression one has after watching Memoirs of a Geisha is the majestic beautify of the film. Rob Marshall has done an outstanding job recreating pre-World War II Japan, and his crew received several Oscar nominations in recognition of their great work. In fact, there are several scenes in the movie where I found myself ignoring the story and instead concentrating on the beautiful set design. Somehow, Marshall is even able to make snow falling outside a window appear so elegant that it's hard to look away. While this is clearly a plaudit for the film's technicians, fawning over snowflakes does not speak well for the movie as a whole.
In essence, Memoirs of a Geisha plays like a modestly entertaining soap opera with a huge budget and exotic locale. It never ceases to amaze me the number of big budgeted movies that will spend millions on hairstyling, but seem to be trying to create a screenplay on the cheap. My only assumption is that Sony Pictures -- which spent $85 million on the movie -- would not green light any script that defied conventional storytelling in any way. And by conventional, I mean boring.
Like many big budgeted films, there is an overabundance of story and a deficit of characterization. In Geisha, the filmmakers have the unenviable task of cramming a 500 page novel into a two and a half hour film. Even with huge cuts to the novel's story, there is still nowhere near enough time to allow anything like subtlety or subtext to take root. The first casualty, as often is the case in adapted novels, are the characters. Hatsumomo in particular suffers from the novel's abridgement.
Hatsumomo is clearly not a friendly girl. She takes an instant dislike to Sayori and wants to see her suffer. Instead of slowly introducing the depth of Hatsumomo's hatred, the film paints her character in garish broad strokes that make her a bland caricature. Instead of committing minor indiscretions, from the moment Hatsumomo is introduced she seems intent on having Sayori killed. While fervent, unexplained malice may work for cartoon characters (such as the evil stepsisters in Cinderella), in a supposedly more mature movie like it comes off as silly and boring. We are supposed to despise Hatsumomo, but such fervent malevolence makes her character's actions simply baffling.
There also seems to be a gaping hole in the Sayori's character as well. She obviously longs to become a geisha and luxuriate in the lifestyle. For many Westerners, this may seem like an admirable goal, as the geisha has been romanticized as a symbol of feminine purity. However, the bulk of a geisha's largesse comes from auctioning off her virginity to the highest bidder. Because the movie must devote time to the love triangle between Sayori, the Chairman and Nobu there is no mention at all of whether Sayori even wants auction off her body in the first place. Admittedly, a poor orphan girl might very well submit to this practice, but it is somewhat troubling how Memoirs of a Geisha romanticizes the practice (see Sayori's quote above).
In fact, it isn't until we are well into the movie's third act that the moral quandary of sex-on-demand is addressed. This occurs far after Sayori has sold herself; it happens when the Americans occupy Japan and a randy general demands sex in exchange for business favors. What was especially striking about the scenes with the Americans was how much more interesting they were than anything that occurred over the previous two hours. With the introduction of the ignorant and lewd American soldiers any girl can slap on makeup and become a geisha for the night. The disintegration of geisha culture and, to a certain extent, traditional Japanese society, at the hands of the barbarian invaders is grist enough for a dozen dramas, all of them far more intriguing than Memoirs of a Geisha. Who knows, maybe they'll make a sequel.
The two-disc set from Sony Pictures provides a fair transfer of the movie. The picture is a bit soft, but the colors are still striking and vibrant. The sound is exceptional and this DVD is a great showcase for the beautiful traditional music on the soundtrack. The extras are plentiful, if rather staid. There are two commentary tracks, one with director Rob Marshall and producer John DeLuca. Marshall does most of the talking, and his soothing voice, in tandem with the elegant imagery will likely put you into a deep, peaceful sleep. The second commentary track features the movie's costume director, production designer, and editor. This is a commentary track so technical only a film student could possibly be interested in listening to the whole thing.
The second disc consists of 11 featurettes. The enjoyment of these will vary greatly and is dependent on a strong interest in Japanese culture. The featurettes included are:
* Sayuri's Journey: From the Novel to the Screen
* The Road to Japan
* Geisha Boot Camp
* Building the Hanamachi
* The Look of a Geisha
* The Music of Memoirs
* A Geisha's Dance
* The World of the Geisha
* The Way of the Sumo
* Rob Marshall Featurette
* A Day with Chef Nobu Matsuhisa
Of these featurettes, the two I most enjoyed were The Way of the Sumo and A Day with Chef Nobu Matsuhisa, an internationally famous chef who has a cameo in the film. Strangely enough, these are the two featurettes that have the least relevance to the making of the film, or the geisha lifestyle. I think, after watching the movie, and wading through about seven hours of bonus features, I'm pretty geisha'd out, to be honest.
While Memoirs of a Geisha was in production there was some minor controversies over casting. Many in China (where the film has been banned) and Japan (where the film has garnered disappointing box office returns) expressed anger that the film's three leads are all played by Chinese actresses. While the casting clearly makes sense from a financial standpoint -- Ziyi and Yeoh are far more renowned internationally than any Japanese actress -- for the most part their casting seems to have been creatively sound as well. Additionally, the three actresses (with the possible exception of Yeoh) could easily pass for Japanese.
The only caveat to this praise is Zhang Ziyi's trouble with the English language. While the rest of the cast seems to be speaking fluent English (with the requisite Japanese accents), Ziyi expels her dialogue as if she learned them phonetically. That said, she easily makes up for all intonation problems with an excess of natural beauty.
Watching Memoirs of a Geisha is like dining in a lavishly decorated restaurant that serves bland food in small servings. If you prefer ambiance over gastronomical pleasure while dining out, you will probably enjoy this movie immensely. Personally, I care far more about the amount of beef in my burger than the quality of drapes in the room where I'm seated.
Guilty of Lifetime-style, overbearing melodrama in the guise of big-budget Oscar-bait. Or are those the same thing?
Review content copyright © 2006 Brendan Babish; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* 11 Behind the Scenes Featurettes
* Audio Commentary with Director Rob Marshal and Co-Producer John DeLuca
* Production Audio Commentary (Costume Designer, Production Designer, Editor)
* Official Site
* Soundtrack Site