"When you think 'Geisha' you think 'hooker' right?" said my sister when she gave me this book.

I never thought that, but I never fully understood the tradition. This book exposed me to this unique character in history and also gave me some insight into the traditional performing arts in Japan. The details in descriptions of the kimonos and make-up etc were exquisite and the stark contrasts between beauty and ugliness in character as well as physical appearance are excellent. This book also made me re-evaluate some of the modern interactions between men and women in Japan.

I did not find this book extraordinarily written as far as the plot was concerned but Golden does paint some interesting images:

"I felt as if I had fallen into a tub of creatures that where biting me everywhere"

and

"It says a great deal about how civilized we human beings are, that a young girl can willingly sit and allow a grown man to comb wax through her hair without doing anything more than whimpering quietly to herself. If you tried such a thing with a dog, it would bite you so much you'd be able to see through your hands."

I found the book a bit campy in parts, like the "translator's note" at the beginning where the fictional translator adds validity to the fictional memoir. The ending was also abrupt and totally different from the rest of the book.

Golden based the book on interviews he conducted in 1992 with Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha who had been the geisha equivalent of a superstar in the 1960s and 1970s, who was even hired by the government to entertain guests like the Queen of Great Britain.

A few days ago, Iwasaki filed a lawsuit against Golden and his publisher, on two points:

  • She claims she had only agreed to the interviews because she was promised anonymity, and Golden broke that promise by naming her in the acknowledgements of the book.
  • She says Golden stained her personal honor by wrongly implying or outright stating that like the main character in the book, she had also been sold into a geisha house by her parents and that her virginity had ben auctioned in a mizuage ceremony.

In general, Iwasaki says the book vastly overemphasizes the sexual aspect of the geisha trade, especially by failing to make the distinction between the "real" geisha, who are mainly very high-class entertainers, and prostitutes trying to profit from their mystique by calling themselves geisha.

She has stated that she will use her friends and contacts to prevent the making of a movie based on the book (which is planned to be directed by Steven Spielberg) and will write her memoirs to correct the image presented in the book.

In Japanese society, geisha were the "career girls" of the pleasure quarters: performers and hostesses, they were traditionally distinguished from courtesans by their relative modesty of dress, mobility (they could entertain when and where convenient, not merely in their homes) and by the stipulation that they would not have sex with paying customers (union regs, don't ya know). From these three, it followed that any kind of relationship a customer might have with a geisha would be of the high-school romance variety: lots of intense talk about neutral subjects, lots of talk about what you could have done, if things were otherwise, lots of wisecracks and teasing...and no follow-through. To a nice middle-class samurai of the 19th century, the notion that this was no submissive housewife, nor a airheaded bimbo to be bought and bedded, but an exotic independent, met as an equal, and won over with intellect and charm was heady stuff. To that, there was always the possibility...just the outside chance....that she might, just might, if no one was looking, decide to bend the rules ... sometime in her off-hours? Perhaps even tonight... Meanwhile, she would play her little country samisen(made of a cat's tummy, I'd like to think of it as being from an old, and beloved cat), sing sweetly poignant romantic songs, dance a little, suggest and play silly, girlish games, and chitchat in the old-fashioned Kansai dialect about current events, or the painting on the wall, or the flowers...

Westerners visiting Japan after 1854 saw a different picture. Unable to understand the language, the fine points of geisha courtship utterly escaped them. To see a white-faced woman, hardly five feet tall, kneeling in front of a customer, pouring his wine or performing some other attention was to see a woman utterly childlike and submissive, the diametric opposite of the French adventuresses plying their trade a world away. And, although it was roundly asserted, time after time, that sex was not part of the package, who was to say that such an innocent creature would not submit, given the right incentive, a chat with the mama-san, and a little tea and sympath¥?

For the gaijin back home, geisha were invested with all the mystique of Damsels in Distress: heartbreakingly fragile and naive, taught from birth only to love and submit, heroically suffering under the cruelty of heartless men, "feeble florets" so much like the degraded and deluded prostitutes of their own land! (Send in your money for a mission to Japan today!) So it is that we see poor Madame Butterfly, the ultimate submissive, whose perfect love blinds herself to the possiblity that her crass American husband has deserted her. Her love is pure, her loyalty is neverending, her sorrow is exquisite...as the Chinese opera star in the recent play "M. Butterfly" had it, if she were American we'd call her a bloody idiot.

This is a novelized, gently modernized version of Butterfly, where an orphaned fisherman's daughter named Sayuri recalls her rise (to a nonspeaking Dr. Hoorhaas) to become the top geisha in the Gion district of Kyoto, and hence (she says) Japan, and her intense devotion over many years to the Chairman, a wealthy customer who she craves as her "Danny" or patron. Alas, she must deal with the cruelty of the geisha system, her jealous rivals, and the grim realities that come between them...

As described in this book, being a geisha is a rather dull and demanding job in wretched conditions, being required to smear your face with bird droppings and often having hair so dirty that switching combs would be like switching underwear. In indentured servitude to a student loan, Sayuri spends most of her time at music school, running errands for her adoptive family, or doing her job to entertain and wait on men who shed dandruff into her drink. While she's vehement about her job not being prostitution, she's forced into bedding the creepy Dr. Crab as part of her mizusage, or graduation, and the brilliant, repugnant Nobu, as her Danny. What sex she manages to have is like bad sashimi: cold, bland, and slimy.

Outside of this, she has zero outside interests, unless you count mooning over the Chairman. Once, her stunned reaction to a freak lighting effect was the subject of a famous sketch by an equally famous artist, and once, in spring, she walked in a famous garden. She likes old-fashioned geisha perfume, and can usually describe what someone's wearing, unless they're in Western dress. (Surely, she can remember hemlines?) Otherwise, she's indifferent to seasons, landscapes or flowers, and outside of a knowlege of etiquette and astrology, uninterested in culture or religion. Her charming gestures were learned by rote, not instinct. Foreign cultures fail to make much of a mark on her, technology frightens her, the mere notion of work outside the profession alarms her, reading bores her, music fails to affect her much. She's a ditz about finance, and although she can perform a tea ceremony, she characterizes the subtly bittersweet usucha as "dishwater". Though she might sound, in summary, like a brilliant comic turn -- The Little Geisha Who Couldn't -- it's intended as somber high drama, delivered in a whiny, cringing tone that recalls the High Victorian feminist slogan "Sir, pity us!" (Tip, please.) If this isn't a bimbo semi-pro ho, I don't know what is.

Golden manages a nice Jane Austin-like section dealing with the defloration auction, and a later chapter, set at a hot springs, is masterfully suspenseful. The device of describing elegant settings by elegantly not describing them is as old as the Princess of Cleves, but clever nonetheless. I know I'm supposed to feel righteous indignation over Sayuri's oppression and guilty titillation over the S&M scenes, but there's a fine line between a pitiful Damsel in Distress and a bloody idiot. The main problems seem to be his single-minded program of demystification and his inability to understand the female mind, and perhaps the Japanese one, as well. Yes, most of the details he relates are true, but he lacks the background that gives these bare facts resonance: a geisha's first customer pays dearly for the privilege, and sometimes beds her in the bargain -- as part of a week-long honeymoon -- but it's considered just as demeaning there as here and much frowned upon. It's true that in Japan, a blood stain is considered a ritual defilement as foul as carrion or excrement -- but it seems to me that a house full of women, a spot from a cut foot in a back hallway would be treated a little more casually. Yes, it's true that Japanese is a language full of apologies and modesty -- but I can't imagine any woman, much less one whose job it is to entertain and amuse retelling so many gross details so charmlessly. (Yes, tears of a clown, and all, but really....)

All in all, a rather disappointing book. If you want to know the real skinny on being a geisha, read Geisha by Liza Dalby, who is one. If you want to read a story about pretty people doing pretty things, read The Tale of Genji. But please, don't take this book as anything other than a (male) fantasy with a few factoids, like Titanic. Really.

Pearl Harbor sort of pissed me off. The Last Samurai was at least entertaining, but still... Now, Memoirs of a Geisha? With Pokemon, Nintendo, anime, horny salarymen, whorey schoolgirls and their underwear in vending machines served to me from TV and every corner of the internet, I was looking for the next bit of Japan in western mass media to be a little less stereotypical. Why not something like Kikujiro, or Waterboys, or even Tora-san? Why not a story in Japan, instead of a story about Japan? Maybe it's too much to ask right now, but I've almost had enough of being the cultural 'other.' But still, I haven't seen the movie, and maybe my second-generation Nikkei perspective is distorting. So I took a look at some user reviews on Yahoo! Japan for Memoirs of a Geisha, or Sayuri as it has been retitled, to find out how the movie was being received there, and there are different takes on it. Maybe it was just me constructing myself as the 'other.'

The average rating as of now is 3.2 stars out of five.

These bits were translated by me, and were chosen to show some range in opinion. The page is accessible from here: http://moviessearch.yahoo.co.jp/detail?ty=mv&id=321931


"The problem isn't the casting, but the movie's overall 'cheapness.' Even foreigners who watch this without preconceptions will probably find it cheap. I'd have liked them to decide on whether it was meant to be fantasy or realistic fiction." -eiga_shumi_2005 (2 stars)


"This was too awful. The casting, production, script, the background research.. everything was awful. It was a grand mockery of Japanese culture, and completely unable to express the beauty of the kimono. The movie truly made me sad." -wye_eyw (1 star)


"I hope that the people who will see this movie don't watch this and think "this bit is wrong and that thing is not right", but immerse themselves in the world of Rob Marshall's "Sayuri." ... Even after the movie ended, the world of "Sayuri" didn't disappear so easily from my heart; this is what makes this movie special." -shopen100 (5 stars)


"It turns out that Japanese and Chinese are quite easy to tell apart. I thought about why, and I realized that expressions, and the style of acting are different. But Zhang Ziyi's expressions and acting were in a Japanese style.

Incredible.

Japanese people will find many things strange, like maiko being called geisha, but I think this is done intentionally for American audiences. Still, Japanese will find out many deep, interesting facts they didn't know about Japan's past too." -yutakasaito2004 (5 stars)

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