Chiyo's eyes have seen much heartache: Her mother on her deathbed. Her penniless and grieving father brokering a deal to sell his children. Her screaming sister being suddenly ripped from her arms because she's not deemed worth the investment. And this is all before Chiyo celebrates her 10th birthday. Despite the pain they've witnessed and wept, these eyes—with their rare grey-blue intensity—are Chiyo's only hope for the future. They give her a unique, stunning beauty and make two women who run one of the countless okiyas (homes for geishas) in Kyoto see her as a wise investment. Perhaps she could one day bring their house money. Perhaps, with the right training, she could become a geisha.

Suzuka Ohgo as the young Chiyo, who becomes a geisha in training

Suzuka Ohgo as the young Chiyo, who becomes a geisha in training

Soon Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) attends classes to learn how to dance, play instruments, sing, and pour tea, all with the flair and exactness of the geisha tradition. Though this new world is fascinating and colorful, Chiyo is dogged by thoughts of her sister and by Hatsumomo (Gong Li), the reigning geisha of their humble okiya. Hatsumomo is one of the most beautiful geishas in Kyoto, but her actions toward Chiyo are anything but pretty. She torments the young girl with false accusations that bring Chiyo brutal punishment from Mother (Kaori Momoi), the merciless woman who runs the okiya. Still, it's Hatsumomo's earnings that support all those in the house.

Mother finally tolerates Chiyo's seemingly bad behavior no longer when her attempt to run away with her sister, who's been forced into prostitution, fails. Mother pulls her out of geisha classes and forces Chiyo to be the okiya's servant. A life that has gotten darker and darker finally seems pitch black as Chiyo faces long grueling days of physically demanding chores and no hope of ever seeing her family again. But one day when she's out in the bustling streets of Kyoto, a handsome stranger treats her with rare kindness. And soon after, one of Hatsumomo's rivals, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), the premier geisha in the district, takes Chiyo under her wing. Finally Chiyo has that rare and essential gift: hope.

Ziyi Zhang plays the grown-up Chiyo who gets a new name—Sayuri

Ziyi Zhang plays the grown-up Chiyo who gets a new name—Sayuri

As Chiyo transforms into a geisha in this new chapter of her life, she's also given a new name: Sayuri. The rest of the film centers on the politics and intrigue of Sayuri's introduction into the geisha world—including trying to land a good danna (patron) and get a lucrative bid for her mizuage (virginity). These will help pay off the debt she owes to Mother and win Mameha's bet with Mother that she could transform Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) into a successful geisha. But Hatsumomo is bent on thwarting Mameha's plans, and Sayuri finds herself perhaps being promised to the coworker and good friend of the man she secretly loves—The Chairman (Ken Watanabe). Even though she meets The Chairman at the young age of nine, working herself into his life becomes her driving goal. And in a world where so much that happens to her is out of her control, even having a dream that is all her own is powerful.

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Those who have read Arthur Golden's book by the same name will notice subtle differences in the plot and characters. Of course elements of this 400-page bestseller have to be left out, but the most striking difference I noticed was the shift in several main characters. Mother doesn't seem as gnarled and mean, Nobu (Koji Yakusho) isn't as deformed and gruff, Sayuri doesn't seem as utterly hopeless and then lovelorn, Hatsumomo seems more like a caricature than a cunning and calculating opponent. Basically, they've taken some of the bite out of the story.

Hatsumomo (Gong Li) is the beautiful but mean-spirited reigning geisha in the okiya

Hatsumomo (Gong Li) is the beautiful but mean-spirited reigning geisha in the okiya

The scenery, staging, lighting, and costuming here—the film is set in the late 1920s—are all so dazzling and colorful, you almost forget this is basically a story of human trafficking. Unlike director Rob Marshall's last theatric masterpiece, Chicago, this film is based on events that really happened. No, Sayuri isn't inspired by a real woman, but there were countless Sayuris who lived some rendition of her simultaneously bleak and beautiful existence. Somehow that staggering fact gets lost somewhere in the beautiful imagery. And while all these masterful sights and sounds work well with a campy, vampy flick like Chicago, they seem somehow out of place here. I would have liked to see a little less dazzle and a little more grit. A less rushed pace, especially as Mameha teaches Sayuri all the ways of the geisha, and more time taken to let the characters feel their disappointments and longings. A little less wide-eyed wonder and a little more fleshing out of Mameha's warning to Sayuri: "We do not become geisha to pursue our own destinies."

The politics in the movie have been mirrored by some controversy about the movie. The three lead actresses for this Japanese story are Chinese—though, international issues aside, no one can argue that the acting in the film is anything but superb. The movie was filmed mostly on a created set in California with dialogue almost completely in English with Japanese accents. And there's an American ring to Sayuri's life-absorbing desire to find love, as most geisha simply wanted to find a reliable danna, and preferably one who was good and kind. It will be interesting to see how the film fares in Asian countries.

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Most American audiences won't notice or be distracted by these subtleties. Most simply will be drawn to a lavishly spun tale of friendship and rivalry, hope and despair, choice and duty, love and lust, traditional custom and forbidden emotion. While the film is a visual feast of colors, the final product would have been even more intriguing and accurate if a few more of the darker hues were included. But the overall effect is not so unlike Mameha's description of geisha themselves: a moving work of art.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. At the outset of the movie, we hear Sayuri's voice saying a story like hers should never be told. Why do you think she says this? What does she mean?

  2. Chiyo's name is changed to Sayuri when she becomes an apprentice geisha. Think about instances in the Bible when people are given new names (Jacob to Israel, Simon to Peter,Saul to Paul, etc.). What parallels do you see? Why do you think a new name is necessary?

  3. Sayuri talks about the life of a geisha being agony and beauty side by side. List the ways this life is agony and the ways it is beauty. Does one of these sides weigh heavier than the other? In what ways are our own lives both agony and beauty?

  4. At one point Nobu tells Sayuri, "Victory doesn't always belong to the powerful." In what ways is this true in the movie? In life?

  5. List the ways women in the movie are dependent on men. What resources and power of their own do the women have? In what ways do they use them wisely and in what ways do they use them poorly? In what ways do you use your resources and power wisely and poorly? How could you use these things to help those who are still powerless and unhealthily dependent on others for their livelihood?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Though the sexual side of a geisha's life is largely unexplored here, there are some references to it and some overall themes that wouldn't be appropriate for young children. Mature teens might find this an entertaining peek at a fascinating period of world history, one worth discussing afterward.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

from Film Forum, 12/22/05

Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) turns Arthur Golden's poetic novel Memoirs of a Geisha into another elaborate display of razzle-dazzle, and in doing so, he's won himself a controversy. After all, the novel is about Japanese characters, and Marshall's film is packed with well-known Chinese actresses. To complicate matters further, they're speaking English … a distracting, halting form of English.

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Will the film be an Oscar contender? Perhaps in some categories for its flamboyant style. But most critics agree that Zhang Ziyi delivered a far more complex and engaging performance in Wong Kar-Wai's 2046 earlier this year. And they're dismayed at how the film, despite its enthralling source material, has come to feel rather like a Hollywood melodrama.

Christianity Today Movies is the only religious press site to publish a review since the film's opening. Camerin Cortney calls it "a moving work of art" and says "no one can argue that the acting in the film is anything but superb." She concludes that the film is "a lavishly spun tale of friendship and rivalry, hope and despair, choice and duty, love and lust, traditional custom and forbidden emotion."

Most mainstream film critics are unhappy with it, saying the makeup doesn't disguise the missteps.

from Film Forum, 01/05/06

(Plugged In) says, "Memoirs offers little explicit commentary on how men treat these alluring women. But I believe it does illustrate how deeply demeaning the objectification of the geisha ultimately is. … Whatever beauty the geisha culture may appear to have on the surface, the reality for these women is an ugly one. Perhaps that's why this story left me feeling so cold in the end."

Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) says the film "is lovely to look at, with its natural scenery matched only by the beauty of its three lead actresses (none of whom are Japanese). But the film suffers from problematic pacing. It bogs down early and feels inert during much of the first hour. When things start to heat up, they go too far, too fast, propelled by a combination of sex, lies and jealousy not overly different from any number of other films that mix romance and professional politics."

Kenneth R. Morefield (Christian Spotlight) acknowledges that this is "a lushly shot, skillfully acted, and competently directed film." But he concludes, "For all the film's insistence that geisha are not courtesans nor prostitutes, for all the underlining that Sayuri's prayers and choices are the product of the absence of choice, the film ultimately celebrates the institution of geishahood for providing an escape from poverty and never seriously gives much thought to the price that it extracts. When Sayuri's virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder, we are invited to linger over her triumph in extracting the highest price in history while the cost of the earnings is only hinted at as she lies down to a discreet fadeout."

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from Film Forum, 01/12/06

Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus) says, "Leaving the theater after seeing Memoirs of a Geisha, I wasn't quite sure what it was that left me unsatisfied. To be sure, it is a visual pleasure of the highest order. Director Rob Marshall and cinematographer Dion Beebe made almost every frame a work of art. Add to this a wonderful John Williams score incorporating both Western and Eastern music and including gifted musicians Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. On the aesthetic level, this is a film that may be without peer this year. … But in the end, I was disappointed, I think, because the film never picked which themes it wanted to focus on. Instead it gave us bits and pieces of many themes, but not enough to fill out any of them."

Memoirs of a Geisha
Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for mature subject matter and some sexual content)
Directed By
Rob Marshall
Run Time
2 hours 25 minutes
Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh
Theatre Release
December 23, 2005 by Columbia Pictures
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