Rambling ...

I'm an Irish Girl, A Dubliner, with the 'Gift of the Gab' ... I like to talk & to tell you things. In Celtic times news, views and comment were carried from place to place by wandering Seanachaí ~ Storytellers ~ who relied on their host's hospitality and appreciation. I will need that from you too, as I venture to share Politics, Poetry, Laughter, Love, Life & everything in-between ... from Bog to Blog!!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Willow World!!

~  It is not for Geisha to want.  It is not for Geisha to feel. ... She dances.  She sings. ... whatever you want.  The rest is shadows.  The rest is secret. ~

 The World of the Willow.   A world as Forbidden as it is Fragile.   The world of Geisha.   Swathed in Silk, Sliding doors and Seduction  .....  the Sensual icons of Japanese Dreams.  Since about birth I've wanted to be a Geisha Girl! 

 So,  today,  Four Books & a Film.  Truncated Thoughts & a Film Review is a more accurate description, actually!!   (Thought I would make up a little for this posting being late).  

Geisha of Gion by Mineko Iwasaki

The autobiography of this most famous Geisha in the second half of the twentieth century, Mineko Iwasaki was a veritable celebrity in her native Japan and Arthur Golden relied heavily on interviews with her to write Memoirs of a Geisha.  Because of that, this is an important read for a more truthful account of Geisha life.  Mineko Iwasaki broke the Geisha code of secrecy by writing this book, but she felt duty-bound to do so after the success of Memoirs of a Geisha, which perpetuated false information both about Geisha and herself. This non-fictional account of her life gives deeper insight into what it was like to be a famous Geisha Girl during the last few years that being a Geisha entailed a similar job description to that of  the past. The changing demands of the twentieth century leave Mineko Iwasaki unsure of whether Geisha will be able to survive into the future. 

Autobiography of a Geisha by Sayo Masuda

This first-person account of Sayo Masuda's life as a hot springs resort Geisha is the most difficult book of the four to read. While Geisha, a Life deals with the comparatively privileged and even enviable life of a woman devoted to art and beauty,  this Autobiography of a Geisha tells a darker tale of a woman sold as a child to a Geisha house and raised to be more like a prostitute than an artist. Her childhood as a slave to her house is dreadful, her young adult life as a full Geisha and then mistress is little better.  Masuda's account of her struggles, especially through the years of World War II are truly heartbreaking.  Still, there is some romance, some happiness,  and always a lot of spirit & soul from Sayo. Many elements from Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha are noticeable here. So much so, in fact, I think that he combined the gritty reality here with the elegance of Mineko Iwasaki's life to pen his novel.

 Geisha by Liza Dalby

Liza Dalby holds a special place in the history of Geisha ~ she is the only foreigner to ever become one. This book is partly her story, partly history, partly modern status of Geisha. In many ways it reads like a text book, but is a bit more engaging ... she uses anecdotes and has an easy writing style. If you are looking for an accurate history of Geisha, want to find out what it is like to be a Geisha today, how that profession and those that surround it have changed over time, then this book is to be recommended. It is thoroughly researched and, although it does use many anecdotes to help move it along, relies more on graphs and historical information than stories. The book can also be read in any order so it is an ideal reference tool. It is truly a wealth of information on the most idealized, misrepresented and misunderstood group of women ever to capture our fascination and our imaginations.  The Women of the Willow World!

 Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

This powerful novel was a huge factor in spurring the Geisha craze of the late 1990's. The writing is enchanting and deeply honest,  and believable,  so much that I did not even realize it was fiction until someone pointed it out to me.  Arthur Golden interviewed famous Geisha and  researched their culture to spin this story of a young girl named Sayuri,  of growing up in a Geisha house, of becoming a Geisha, of falling in love,  of surviving World War II,  and retiring amid societal change.   Water propels the tale forward.  Tightly written, the novel moves quickly like a brook flowing over a stony bed, ever seeking its path forward. And with many twists and turns remeniscent of a mountain spring, the writing is briskly refreshing.  Difficult to set aside, the tale entangles the reader into a web of intrigue and stratagems of the leading players who move like chessmen against each other.  With great skill, Arthur Golden easily takes his place amongst the master craftsmen of fiction, the great tale-spinners Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo and Mark Twain in his ability to create a cinematic historical stage, realistic dialogue and internal subterfuge that keeps the reader enthralled unto the end.  However, readers are advised to keep in mind that this is fiction and not a strictly accurate portrayal of Geisha life.  Arthur Golden gives us more insight into their world than perhaps any other novelist, however, he still perpetuates certain misconceptions and stereotypes.

“The Camera Eye is the possibility of making visible the invisible, of bringing light into darkness, of revealing what is hidden.”  
~ Dziga Vertov, 1972
And the Cinematic interpretation is a sumptuous Cinderella story .... all silk and sensuality, as discreet as an unopened waterlily.  It is beautifully shot, and has a carefully constructed musical score that blends the romantic west with the mystical east. Yet the film never manages to get beyond a pastiche of the Orient.  Rather than subtly pulling apart the layers of this complex female world to reveal the longing and desire buried beneath the kimono, Director Rob Marshall errs on the side of cliché and leaves you in no doubt about who’s naughty and who’s nice. The romance that lies at the heart of this sublime story is never fully given the focus it deserves.   Ken Watanabe and Michelle Yeoh shine in a cast who otherwise look good but are often underused.  About halfway through I realised that the film had become a kind of Geisha itself ~  gorgeously drenched in silk,  stylishly beautiful to look at,  but with little prospect of emotional attachment and definitely no sex. It’s lush, stylish and a feast for the eyes and ears rather than the heart and soul.

In this cloistered world, men come and go as do history and warplanes, amid spectacularly unfortunate metaphors about male 'eels' and female 'caves' and one brief catfight in a kimono as our geisha girls are swept up in jealous rivalries during the 1930's and 40's.   Then again, there isn't all that much for a geisha to do other than serve and conspire.  Rigorously trained from childhood, geishas dedicate themselves wholly to the paid amusement of male customers.   Once upon a time in Japan, some women were in the service of procreation, others were employed for recreational sex, while the geisha operated in that gray area in between.  (Curiously, the first geishas were men?????)   Geishas aren't typical sex workers though ~ they're superclassy sex workers who sell their virginity to the highest bidder (the pretext in both the book and film for that unhappy bit about eels and caves) and rely on steady male patronage. But while serving a new customer every six months certainly sounds less untowards than, say, turning six tricks a night in a day-rate motel, who's kidding whom?

The book and the film do attempt to attenuate the more distasteful aspects of geisha life, mostly by avoiding the contradiction between its degradations and its glamorous trappings. The story, after all, opens in the 1920's with Sayuri, then age 9 and called Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo), and her older sister being sold by their impoverished fisherman father and spirited away into the dark, rainy night. The girls are soon separated, with the older sister sold to a low-end brothel and the future geisha sold to her okiya, a beehive of female activity run by a pair of crones cum pimps (pun unintended!) and supported by the labours of its clipped-wing queen, Hatsumomo. Legally bound to the crones, to whom she must hand over most of her wages, Hatsumomo hopes to secure her future by one day running the okiya.

 But when she becomes unstuck in both love & ambition her hair tumbles down and she sashays about the okiya, stirring the air with her tremulous rage. Having seen a very different future for herself in the blue eyes of the new girl, Hatsumomo directs all that fury toward her eradication.  In time, this enmity will assume soap-operatic proportions and involve the rival geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), who takes Sayuri on as a trainee, and the two businessmen whose attentions consume so much of the women's and the story's time .... the Chairman (Ken Watanabe, the majestic hunk from "The Last Samurai") and his partner and friend, Nobu (the renowned Japanese actor Koji Yakusho).

 There are some disturbing aspects to the movie ~ two scenes which I find quite disturbing.  The first is early in the movie where an adult man (called the Chairman (Ken Watanabe of “The Last Samurai”)  buys a flavoured ice treat for a pretty little girl.  The girl falls in love with the man and devotes her life to pursuing a romance with him. It sounds like a pedophile's fantasy.   The movie opens on another disturbing scene,  two poor young rural girls being sold to Tokyo geisha houses by their impoverished parents. The two girls soon lose track of each other ~ one is sold directly into prostitution, although barely pubescent,  and the only family the younger girl has left are the people in the geisha house, where she is a virtual slave.  Then the young girl meets the nice man ~ the Chairman (Ken Watanabe of “The Last Samurai”), who buys her the ice treat. She now has a goal in her life, the Chairman.  This doesn't sit well.

Neither does the second disturbing factor for me & that is that although the movie takes pains to argue that a geisha is not a prostitute, but rather an artistic entertainer, who rarely sells sexual favours for money, the geisha sells her virginity to the highest bidder, even though prostitution is supposed to be beneath the dignity of a geisha (and this particular sale of virginity was reportedly denied by the geisha on whom the story is loosely based). Regardless of the pomp, pageantry and elegant entertainment of the geisha houses, it is, after all, the unstated promise of sexual availability that provides the money to support this elaborate illusion of sexless entertainment, is it not???

Much has been made of the fact that several of the lead actresses in this movie are not Japanese. Both Li Gong and Ziyi Zhang are Chinese, while Michele Yeoh of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” fame is Malaysian.  Yeoh plays Mameha, Sayuri's mentor.  All three women are great actresses, and they give great performances, but the argument has been made that the subject of this movie is so uniquely Japanese that only Japanese actors can correctly interpret the material.  Then again, the author of the book isn't Japanese,  so maybe the whole argument is baseless.  And maybe that is where my Nit picky aversions come from .... leaving the last word to Sayuri (from the Novel) ...

"Since moving to New York I've learned what the word "geisha" really means to most Westerners. From time to time at elegant parties, I've been introduced to some young woman or other in a splendid dress and jewellery. When she learns I was once a geisha in Kyoto, she forms her mouth into a sort of smile, although the corners don't turn up quite right as they should. She has no idea what to say! And then the burden of the conversation falls to the man or woman who has introduced us ~  "because I've never learned much English, even all these years. Of course, there is little point even in trying, because this woman is thinking, "My goodness... I'm talking with a prostitute..."    A moment later she is rescued by her escort, a wealthy man a good thirty or forty years older than she is."

The very word "geisha" means artist, and to be a geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art.   If nothing else this move is exactly that!


  1. I Love the Sumptous, Sensuality that makes this movie such a visual feast!!

    I love Sumptous Sensuality ......

  2. Thank you for your blog ♥ I love Zhang Yiyi. She's very beautiful ! :D

  3. I admire your ability to absorb literature, music, and write succinct and entertaining summaries. Mineko Iwasaki did sue Arthur Golden over his use of her life-story in "Memoirs" because he mixed her details with those of other Geisha, namely Sayo Masuda and others who portrayed a more seamy world than did Mineko. The case was settled out of court and out of ear-shot also. Sayo, the long-suffering lady who transcended a horrific upbringing by force of will and innate goodness of soul, passed away in Oct 2008. We in the West will never know or experience such cruelty and deprivation as those in Japan who survived the war.