A&E // 2005 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // April 19th, 2006
Exotic, sensuous, exquisitely mysterious. For centuries, the seductive grace of the Japanese geisha has fascinated and confounded outsiders who have attempted to fathom this secretive world of tradition, intrigue and pleasure.
While A&E was smart to release The Secret Life of Geisha on the heels of Memoirs of a Geisha, it would be a shame if anyone dismisses the documentary as a cheap exploitation of the popular holiday film. The Secret Life of Geisha, which was originally broadcast on A&E in 1999, is, in many ways, superior to the movie adaptation of Arthur Golden's wildly popular novel. Whereas Memoirs offers only the romanticized archetype of a geisha surrounded by an overly sentimental story, Secret Life explores several attributes of the geisha, both the courtly and unseemly, the modern and antiquated.
In Western society there's a common misconception that geishas are merely high-class Japanese prostitutes. While this is not a completely baseless charge, it is interesting to see how this impression developed. Before World War II, geishas were entrenched members of Japan's upper class. Government leaders and business executives paid small fortunes just share a beer with them. Then, after the American invasion, common Japanese girls began slapping on white make-up and selling their bodies to the American soldiers. The Americans understandably mistook these girls for proper geishas and began telling all their friends back home about the "hot spring geishas" they met in Japan. Word of these amorous "geishas" spread and now, even in Japan itself, there is an impression that geishas, even those that are properly trained, are only exceptionally well behaved call girls.
The Secret Life of Gesiha effectively refutes this by recruiting a gaggle of Westerners to rhapsodize on the beautiful history of the geisha. Most prominent is Arthur Golden himself, author of Memoirs of a Geisha. Golden is one of a disparate range of interview subjects that help make The Secret Life such an exhaustive film. In addition to Golden, other Occidentals interviewed include the first American women to ever become a professional Geisha (this is no small feat, the training for becoming a geisha takes several years), an American soldier who partook of the "geisha girls" during World War II, and a drunk Canadian businessman who bemoans the decline of the geisha's prominence in Japanese culture. While images of this rotund businessman flanked by giggling geishas seem to contradict the reverent tone of the documentary, it is also indicative of the current, semi-degrading employment opportunities that modern-day geishas are forced to accept.
The documentary also interviews several native Japanese. Most prominently featured is a current geisha-in-training. She is quiet, reserved girl who has spent years learning how to pluck the samisen, twirl a fan, pour a beer, etc. There are also interviews with more renowned geishas, including the oldest living practicing geisha, a 93-year-old woman who discusses the horrible effect the American occupation had on the image of geishas worldwide. Perhaps the most striking interviewee is the wife of a Tokyo businessman who insists that she would be honored if he had an extramarital affair with a geisha, due to the added status that would provide for their family. While the woman speaks her husband is sits beside her, nodding and grinning in silent gratitude.
In addition to these extensive interviews, the documentary recounts several events in Japanese history in which geisha play prominent parts. One of the most interesting involves former Prime Minister Sousuke Uno. Uno was Prime Minister for a few months in 1989. He was forced to resign his post after a geisha began complaining to the press about little Uno was paying her for sexual favors. What is striking about the story is that Uno was not forced to resign because of the affair itself; nor was he was forced to resign because he had paid for sexual favors. Uno had to go because of how little he was paying his geisha. Apparently being a cheapskate is a far bigger sin in Japanese politics than infidelity. One can only wonder what these people thought of the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky imbroglio
What elevates The Secret Life of Geisha above mere titillation for Asian fetishists is its ability to conflate the story of geishas with greater Japanese history and culture. In addition to a peek into the life of geishas, this film is probably as good a primer for this inscrutable country as you will find on DVD. It is highly recommended.
The picture on the DVD is sharp and clear and beautifully displays the environs of modern day Japan. The sound adequately conveys the sexy nature of narrator Susan Sarandon's Southern drawl. Unfortunately, the DVD's extra features are quite scant. These include a glossary of geisha terms and a listing of distinguishing characteristics between the various types of geisha. While this may be essential information for geisha fanatics, it makes for pretty dull reading. I think anyone looking to further their study of these delicate porcelain creatures would be better served by just googling "geisha."
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Geisha Points of Distinction