I was lucky enough to travel to Japan a year ago, and at the time, I was in the midst of reading Arthur Golden’s novel. My friend kids, “Why can’t you just wait for the movie like everybody else?”
I saw Kyoto and walked in the alleys of the Gion district, where the story mostly takes place. I imagined Ziyi Zhang all dolled up in a kimono in the setting. Yeah, I couldn’t wait for the movie, until I actually finished the book. While the novel can be engrossing, the ending didn’t satisfy me. When the movie came out in December, the reviews weren’t spectacular (36% on RT) and so I extended my wait until the DVD release. My expectations were low.
“Memoirs of a Geisha” is said to be a retelling of the Cinderella story, set in 1930s Japan. Just like Cinderella, Chiyo loses both her parents at a young age. The orphan grows up in an okiya (a geisha house), where she works as a maid. She finds a friend in another maid named Pumpkin; she discovers an enemy in a scheming geisha named Hatsumomo (Gong Li). Despite an ugly upbringing, Chiyo (Ziyi Zhang) grows up to be a beautiful woman. Under the guidance of the kind geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), Chiyo adopts the geisha name “Sayuri” and matures into a legend in her own right. Despite her repute, Sayuri hardly rises above her troubles. She must get Hatsumomo off her back, stifle her affections towards the compassionate Chairman (Ken Watanabe), and survive an event called “World War II.”
This might be the few instances where I prefer the film to the novel. Much like the film “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” it is wonderfully brisk compared to its book counterpart. But it comes with a price, of course. Part of the novel’s appeal is the intimate details about this exotic setting and livelihood. The movie has no time to dilly dally, so it’s stuck in keeping the plot in motion.
I’m sure that many readers would prefer the novel more. But the movie’s screenplay doesn’t simply regurgitate the story. I think it enriches the tale. There’s no way pages of words can compete with the images seen in the movie. And most of all, the movie seems to be more humane in its portrayal of its characters.
When I read the book, I thought some characters seem like caricatures especially that of Hatsumomo, who is so absurdly bent on destroying Sayuri. But when Gong Li plays her on screen, Hatsumomo is more human – oddly more chilling and gentler at the same time. Surprisingly, it’s the best performance in the movie. Even other characters seem to transform before my eyes – Mameha, the Baron, Nobu, and Pumpkin. I credit the terrific Asian actors for embodying their characters a bit more complex, and not as simplified as the novel had me believed.
It’s not that I’m dissing the book. Perhaps in revisiting the story, I grew more aware in what author Arthur Golden has crafted. With the plot confined to a short running time (2 hours & 25 minutes), it is somehow easier to connect the dots. On the surface, “Memoirs of a Geisha” is the story of one woman, Sayuri. On a closer look, it’s the story of many Sayuris. The genius in Golden’s storytelling is that he plants “what if” characters. What if Chiyo had been not pretty. What if Sayuri had been an inept geisha. What if Sayuri had despised her profession. What if Sayuri was to never have loved at all. There’s a character that represents each “what if” scenario. So if you find Sayuri’s story a bit pat, there are other more tragic characters to choose from. I’m just wondering now, that if I had not read the book nor have gone to Japan, what would be my reaction to the movie be? Well, maybe you can be my “what if” character and tell me.
Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh, Kôji Yakusho, Kaori Momoi, Youki Kudoh, Li Gong, and Kenneth Tsang
Based on the novel by
Rated PG-13 for mature subject matter and some sexual content