Japan on Film: Geisha, Okiyas and Sweet Ice
By James Darnbrook
On May 18, 2015
At one point in Memoirs of a Geisha, Sayuri, the main character, is taught some of the intricacies of how to behave in public by her big sister, Mameha, “I reward him with a glimpse of my wrist. Seeing this demur little piece of my skin, well, it gives him pleasure.”
It’s a telling conversation that highlights the precision and accuracy that a Geisha’s must achieve when interacting with clients (and says something about the interactions themselves). This quest for precision and accuracy is present in every aspect of a Geisha’s public life, and it is far from the only scene of this type. Almost half of the movie focuses on Sayuri learning to be a Geisha; she learns how to dance correctly, how to wear kimono properly, and how to behave appropriately in public, all towards the goal of perfection.
It’s ironic then, that much of the criticism levelled at the movie by Japan’s Geisha community comes from the fact that it’s portrayal of Geisha on the big screen is far from perfect. For the average set of eyes the movie may ring true, but for Japan’s Geisha, the inaccuracies are too many and too obvious to accept.
It’s important to first point out that the most obvious inaccuracy of Memoirs of a Geisha is, of course, that the movie is in English. The use of Chinese actresses for Japanese parts is also inaccurate and both have been criticised in Japan, and around the world. Curiously though, these are not the main points of disapproval for the Geisha community.
“If she is not properly dressed then she is not a true Geisha”
These inaccuracies begin with Kimono. Kimono are integral to a Geisha’s appearance. The Kimono and the Obi (the sash used to tie Kimono) can show the taste of their wearer, their status in society, their age… everything! Different types of kimono are used for different events and knowing how and when each one should be worn, along with what type of Obi to wear with which kind of kimono is an art form in itself. The movie does not stand up to inspection by those who know this art form personally, and it is this inaccuracy that upsets them, ‘We look at them (the kimono) and think it just looks strange.’
The same is true of the make-up and hair of the Geisha seen in the movie. The make-up is ‘not white enough’ and the hair is ‘nothing like it should be.’ Maybe the filmmakers thought their creative choices made the movie more beautiful but for people devoted to looking perfect, it’s a tough blow to take.
“To be Geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art”
If the incorrectness of how Geisha look in the movie is only obvious to those in the Geisha profession, the opposite is true of the movie’s main dance scene. At one point Sayuri is given the chance to perform individually at a dance recital and her performance, where she throws herself across the stage wildly, feels false. This is because it is. Traditional Geisha dances have been passed down through generations and are highly choreographed routines with little space for innovation. Precise movements without any mistakes are the sign of quality dancing and apprentice Geisha spend years practicing to achieve the goal of perfection.
To the movie’s credit, the hard work and pain staking hours of practice needed for perfection is shown in the dance scene montages that lead up to Sayuri’s solo performance. Ironically, the dances being practiced in these scenes resemble true geisha dancing much more closely than Sayuri’s fake individual performance does. The music for Sayuri’s solo scene too is wildly inaccurate; Kyoto is famed for the elegance of its Shamisen music but for the main dance scene the director chose to use sped up ‘aggressive, choppy music from Northern Japan’, underlining again the inaccuracy of what is being portrayed.
“This is how it was, this tiny world of women; friend turned against friend”
The inaccuracy in the portrayal of Geisha’s public appearance has been the focus of most of the criticism from Kyoto’s Geisha community. The movie’s portrayal of Geisha’s private lives however, also seems misrepresentative at times. In the movie Sayuri interacts primarily with four other Geisha; the mother of the Okiya, Hatsumomo, Pumpkin and Mameha. The first three of these people use, abuse and betray Sayuri, respectively. The last, Mameha, is in many ways Sayuri’s saviour, but the plot of the movie on the whole shows a toxic community, filled with people that do terrible things to one another.
The Geisha community is notoriously secret about what life is like behind closed doors even today, and understanding what it was like in the mid 20th century is even more difficult to know, and yet the largely negative portrayal of the Geisha community as a whole, at least to me, seems somewhat misleading.
“We become Geisha because we have no choice”
This leads on to one more aspect of the movie that seems misleading. Just as almost all of the Geisha seem to behave cruelly to one another, almost all of them are portrayed as hopeless and unfulfilled in their lives. Sayuri is effectively sold into slavery, Hatsumomo is denied love and Mameha learns never to expect it. Again the secrecy of the Geisha community now and in the past makes it difficult to know if this is the norm, but the movie’s absence of any positive examples of happy or content characters seems misleading to the point of falsehood.
These falsehoods and inaccuracies that are so obvious in Memoirs of a Geisha are a shame because they ruin a movie that at times actually shows the everyday workings of Geisha life quite truthfully. The practice needed to become Geisha; whether it’s of the Shamisen, dancing or how to behave politely, is constantly on show in the movie. So too are some of the struggles Geisha learn to live with; how difficult it is to style a geisha’s hair, and the hardship of having to sleep on a Takamakura (a hard pillow) so as not to ruin it. Moreover, whilst I have criticized how the movie portrays Geishas relationships with one another, it shows the Okiya system, where Geishas live in houses/businesses together quite openly . It also shows correctly the importance of the Maiko/Geiko (apprentice/Geisha) system that is so valued in the Geisha community.
There are only a few Geisha left in Japan today. Most people are unlikely to ever encounter one, and even fewer still are likely to have the pleasure of their company for an evening. This is why criticism for Memoirs of a Geisha has been so strong. For most people, Geisha portrayals in movies and TV programs are all they will have to learn about this unique aspect of Japanese culture. Unfortunately, Memoirs of a Geisha should not be used to do it. It’s a beautiful looking movie, but one that does not look beautiful in the right way.