The life of a geisha was not one of choice but of necessity for girls who had been sold to different okiya, or homes. With their other options being slavery or prostitution, the life of a geisha, where a wealthy patron would pull you from poverty, is desirable. However, the lifestyle required strict instruction in everything from simple tasks to conversation. From the way they dressed to the way they behaved, everything was calculated for survival. By pulling the veil off of the “floating world” in Japan around the time of World War II, Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) attempts to show this strict lifestyle of geisha by following the life story of the young girl sold to an okiya who became a famous geisha, known as Sayuri. The age-old Western fantasy of a submissive Asian woman whose only purpose is to do a man’s bidding comes to life behind the simple movements and dances within the film. For example, Sayuri learns to flash a bit of skin as a “reward” to the men, allowing them to find pleasure in the bare skin of a woman who is neither their wife nor mistress. Though the life is preferred to prostitution or slavery, the occupation of geisha is painfully restricted by their need to please men as means of survival. Hollywood, though indulging in the fantasy of the “floating world,” makes audiences recognize that the Western fantasy of a geisha can be considered a living hell that no woman would willingly find herself in. The film pulls on the sympathy of the viewers by using familiar themes from Hollywood to convey the harsh life facing geisha.
One theme played over and over in Hollywood films is the injustice of “arranged” love, or the relationship, but not marriage, created between a willing and unwilling participant. A geisha had little to no say in the men she had relations with in her life, which creates sympathy from Western audiences on the matter. In the first scene depicted, the geisha Hatsumomo is punished for having sexual relations with the man she loves. Auntie slaps her, stating,”What do you think? A geisha is free to love? Never.”Were she to choose one man over the others Hatsumomo would displease other men and be unable to capture their full attention. A worse fate would be pregnancy, which would ultimately end her days as a geisha. No man would want a woman so obviously claimed by another. The illusion that geisha are there for the man they are entertaining at a certain time, and that man only, cannot be broken. After all, the worth of a geisha is determined by their desirability, and once that is lost their life ends. Sayuri is an example of how far a geisha will go to build the amount of men interested in her, therefore upping her worth and chances of surviving in the profession. The more men she attracts, then the more competition she will have for her mizuage, or the selling of her virginity. To create competition, she performs the dance in the video clip (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_aX2uEETs2Q) that captivates all the men around her. Though uncharacteristic for a geisha, the dance displays the desperation and confusion that Sayuri feels in her life. She is being pulled in different directions, lost in a strange world where she has no control. The pain she is feeling is only pulled on more when she is teary-eyed after her mizuage. Though she had become a famous geisha, she had lost her virginity not to the man she loved but to another man whose identity was only revealed to her after she had already been sold. Hollywood’s themes of the injustice of “arranged” love as well as the apparent pain it causes the geisha which draws on the sympathy of the viewers, creating a sense of understanding between the Asian characters and Western audiences.
Hollywood also raises the injustice of a woman’s submission to a powerful male. Though submission was traditionally seen as a favorable trait, especially in the Western fantasy, the second screenshot depicts the horrors of the submission. Sayuri finds herself in a situation where she could lose absolutely everything in seconds by the Baron sexually assaulting her. She faces the issue of losing her virginity before her mizuage, and therefore her worth and future as a geisha. Though the Baron only takes a “look,” he holds ultimate power over her. Sayuri cannot cry out or go for help because she is not only a geisha but also a woman. Her life is always in the hands of the men she entertains, and if they were to take her flesh instead of her skills as an artist her life would be ruined. This knowledge plays into the horror of the scene, causing great sympathy from Western audiences who see the sobbing Sayuri clutching desperately at her clothing and her worth. In that moment where Sayuri is stripped from her appearance as a geisha she can be viewed as nothing more than a lowly prostitute, a fate she had been trying desperately to avoid.
Though the “floating world” had been the captivation of Western fantasy, Memoirs of a Geisha shows the true horrors behind the painted faces. Hollywood creates sympathy from the Western audiences towards the Asian characters by implementing common themes such as “arranged” love and female submission to men. Through this sympathy a sense of connection between the East and West is formed.