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.