Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Japanese Response to "Memoirs of a Geisha"

Sort of.

I read Arthur Golden's novel Memoirs of a Geisha and enjoyed it. It's a well-written, captivating but somewhat artificial and fairy tale view of geisha life. I even enjoyed the pretty yet shallow film, which infamously starred three ethnically Chinese actresses in the main roles; but since these three actresses are no less than Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li, I'm not about to complain about getting the chance to see them move about gracefully in gorgeous kimono to the accompaniment of a hauntingly beautiful John Williams theme. Like the novel on which it's based, the film Memoirs is an overly romantic version (and the film is an even more reductive take) of a world that's at once familiar and stereotypical to Westerners, and yet mysterious and aloof, so little known and almost universally misunderstood.

Including by none other than Roger Ebert.

It does seem strange to have so forceful an actress as Zhang Ziyi playing so helpless a character, though. Contrast her fierce Jen Yu from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Sayuri the geisha. Jen Yu makes willful, rebellious decisions (and even has to be on top during sex) that lead her to soaring, twirling, violent ecstasies and her eventual destruction, while Sayuri has so much water in her character she flows from situation to situation subject to the whims of others as much as that liquid is to gravity before achieving her heart's desire, true love. Kind of old fashioned, and kind of a comedown for someone who once played a girl who could open a can of whup ass on a whole restaurant of outlandishly named kung fu superheroes.

I can't imagine Jen Yu submitting to Dr. Crab's ministrations in the same way Sayuri does, and it's odd to see Zhang Ziyi as the personification of both characters behaving so squeamishly and coquettishly. That contrast serves to illuminate one of the misgivings I have about Memoirs as novel and film. But it's not particularly a major one and not one that prevents my enjoyment of both on other levels. Although I think the movie might work better as simply a photobook with a soundtrack CD.

Anyway, all that analysis aside, there's a new movie about geisha coming out. It's called Hannari - Geisha Modern, directed by Sohara Miyuki. You can read a review of it with a brief comparison to Memoirs at Japan Times Online. Mark Schilling, the Japan Times critic, opens his review by explaining why he bothers to write English reviews of strictly Japanese films. Actually, I don't think any justification is needed. A film critic watches films and writes reviews.

But as for me, I'm glad Schilling writes these reviews because I might otherwise never know about these movies. And while I might not see the film during its initial Japanese language only release, there's a good chance it'll be subtitled in English when it comes out on Region 2 DVD. I'm basing this guess on all the other Region 2 Japanese film DVDs I own, including Swing Girls and Battle Royale. In this case, obviously those of us with only rudimentary skills in Japanese can watch and enjoy the output of one of the most interesting and challenging film industries in the world.

And once again, the preferred term (at least in Kyoto) is geiko instead of geisha.

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