From Arthur Golden’s international bestseller to an epic spectacle in the big screen, Memoirs of a Geisha is a romantic portrait of Japanese culture, particularly of geisha life, in western illustration.
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Memoirs of a Geisha is visually and aurally spectacular. Yet, at some point, the film gets emotionally remote. It focuses on the more technical, audio-visual line of storytelling than putting more heart on the love and angst of an oppressed woman and geisha.
The rich material of the novel greatly inspires the epic span of this film into an exotically sumptuous production. The lush interpretation of the lives of painted faces, silk-wrapped, and dolled-up women (similar to showgirls, and in this case, promoting their artistic skills and culture) reveals a tale of poverty, romance, deceit, and dreams. The screen is filled with a great number of lavish and cinematic images that amaze the spectators’ senses. They can enjoy the sights of the pretty paper lanterns, beautiful silk kimonos, cedar and bamboo buildings, and other various displays of artifice. They can take pleasure on listening to the orientalist fantasy created by John William’s suiting music.
From the superb cello solos to the rest of the orchestral masterpieces, the musical score has greatly supported the film’s narrative essentials as a western film about an ancient Japanese tradition. However, at a certain point, the too much grandeur of the sprawling sets of old Kyoto and the colorful geisha district already becomes straining for the film’s content.
Everything seems beautiful even the slum areas. It`s like director Rob Marshall aims to let the audience enjoy more of the visual spectacle, that at certain times, it already tends to upstage the dirt and the emotions needed by the story. Moreover, some of the framed sets and backgrounds, though in individual terms, seem too staged (and looking more like studio sets) because of the too theatrical movements and unrealistic neatness, coordination, and colors. Not to say that this is always bad, but depending on the situation, this can fall pray to superficiality than mere cinematic greatness. It could have worked if the aesthetics could have been done within the right proportions and combinations that won’t seem quite fake.
Overall, the major characters manage to grab the audience’s eyes for its visual artistry and deeply-felt performances. However, it has clear commercial compromises. A number of major and supporting roles have been given to renowned Chinese actresses Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, and Li Gong on the front row. While this is considerably fine in the way that an Australian actor can portray an American or European role, it becomes an issue to those who couldn’t get the suspension of disbelief, especially given all these main actresses are doing the top roles in the film. Other than Ken Watanabe among a few others on the side, there are no much Japanese performers playing Japanese roles.
The drama of the life of an impoverished nine-year old Chiyo and the new chapter of her life from living in a remote fishing village to being sold to a geisha house in Kyoto`s Gion district, is shown like an Asian Cinderella story. It runs to a path of being sentimental that could almost become the likes of a soap opera impressing on its pilot episode. But with its originating novel carefully crafted into a moving saga of identity, beauty, wealth, longing, suffering, politics, and power within an ancient Japanese tradition, the film takes advantage of the well-written bestseller to create a dramatic and cinematic storyline.
Memoirs of a Geisha provides both a good source of entertainment and a short glance of the Japanese society before post-war happenings, industrialization, and westernization, transforming the country into a modern economic and cultural power.
The story retells the looming view of women in many cultures of the past. Women have been portrayed in many cultures as nothing more than delights to the men’s eyes and as parts of their desire for asset and power. Issues can be raised in such a story as this as the geishas are admired and savored by men as trophies and source of masculine entertainment and fulfillment.
Suzuka Ohgo plays well as Chiyo. Ziyi Zhang is radiant as Sayuri. She renders a great performance as a well-trained geisha under the mentorship of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh). She justifies the artistic and social skills a geisha exudes more than just having a pancake make-up, a silk kimono, and a geisha umbrella. Michelle Yeoh, Li Gong (Hatsumomo) and Youki Kudoh (Pumpkin) also offer visual delight to the audience. Amidst a much less screen time for developing their characters, the supporting males Ken Watanabe (the Chairman) and Koji Yakusho (Nobu) still give effective performances. These major and supporting characters contribute to the story’s considerable details relating to geisha entertainment and romance in the 1920’s.
After all the cinematic showdown of technically commendable shots, it`s quite ironic that the ending tries to draw a subtle face from a tragedy. Even the romantic aspect of Sayuri and the Chairman during the height of the story simply yields pretty much the same thing as the other gorgeous shots of cherry blossoms and silk kimonos.
Memoirs of a Geisha is worth seeing for its audio-visual feast. This epic romance period piece is for the ears and the eyes, but not enough for the heart.