Memoirs of Geisha: Orientalism and the Limited Transformation of Chiyo

Memoirs of a Geisha


Memoirs of a Geisha is a Hollywood film that was produced in 2005 based on a novel written by Arthur Golden. The film follow the main character, Chiyo, as she is sold to an okiya, separated from her sister, and through a strike of good fortune, transformed into the artful geisha that she so desire to be as a child, only for her position to be briefly obliterated with the U.S. occupation of Japan. Throughout the film, Chiyo’s love for the Chairman, whom she met as a child, remains, and is finally fulfilled when the Chairman becomes her danna at the end of the film. Derived from the book, which was based on Golden’s interviews with an actual geisha at the time, Mineko Iwasaki, the movie is visually stunning with three beautiful heroines and plenty of romance. It is not a movie about the geishas but rather a movie that depends on a progressing romance, which makes the film much less meaningful and historically accurate than it could have been. Still, it is a visually captivating and emotionally rich, telling the story of a girl becoming a women and her strength and grace through her vastly changing circumstances. Sayuri’s love for the Chariman serves as both a shackle and a means of liberation and this dichotomy is crucial to the communication of the overall meaning of the film. Although the film Memoirs of a Geisha intentionally addresses the harmful effects of orientalism during the United States occupation of Japan, it is a film of inherent orientalist tendencies, often focusing on box-office appeal rather than cultural and historical accuracy. These inconsistencies point to the traces of modern orientalism that still exists in the West. Still, the film beautifully portrays the life of an artist whose spirit remains even as her fortune changes. Our blog will focus on not only the plot but also on sub topics such as the growth of Chiyo and the paternalistic society described in the film by analyzing the small but distinct differences between the movie’s description of the life of a geisha and the historically accurate reality.


The film Memoirs of a Geisha, an American film directed by Rob Marshall in 2005, tells the tale of a young woman who moves through life as water moves through the earth. “Water can carve its way, even through stone, and when it is trapped, water makes a new path” (Marshall, Memoirs of a Geisha). She carves her way into the world around her, and though her life is continually crashed to pieces, her spirit remains intact and fate restores her to success once again. Water is just one symbol in the film that is used to convey its overall message of Sayuri’s transcendent inner freedom. At the same time, other symbols allow a glance into the view of the filmmakers toward Japanese society, specifically, and Asian society in general. In the same way, the fact that this movie was filmed with the intention of being attractive to a wider global audience suggests that these symbols are both impacted by and have an impact on a broad global society (Dargis). In order to portray the meaning of the film and influence audiences, the use of symbols and costumes throughout the film Memoirs of a Geisha demonstrates the growth of Chiyo into Sayuri and the transcendent freedom that she finds through art, beauty, and romance. However, symbols are also used to show the shackles that haunt her throughout her life’s journey, reflecting the Western view that no matter how much inner peace an Asian woman may possess, they live in a society in which they are always enslaved.

Though the Western creators of the film do not allow Sayuri real, worldly freedom, they do utilize symbols to allude to the inner, transcendent, and mysterious freedom that she attains through art, beauty, and romance. Sayuri’s staged performance is one of the turning points of the film. In this moment, Sayuri is swept up into the dance and as she spins and shakes, it seems as if she has truly taken on the identity of Sayuri and has left Chiyo behind. The dance and the peaceful snow around her are symbols of her strong, inner spirit, which remains, tested but unbroken, throughout her life. The dance is shot in such a manner that one forgets that men are watching her at all, and Sayuri appears to find her own freedom in the beauty of the dance. Yet another symbol of Sayuri’s inner freedom is the handkerchief from the Chairman that she carries with her throughout much of the film. While those around her buy and sell her for pleasure, Sayuri is able to hold onto a secret, romantic love, allowing her an inner transcendence from her grim circumstances 40:00-41:18 –> Chiyo Reflects on the Importance of the Chairman’s Gift. While it creates a beautiful and intriguing storyline, the focus on Sayuri’s inner transcendence reflects the Western view of the Asian woman as exotic and mysterious. Just as Hana Ogi is able to achieve liberation through her secret romance and her secret inner world in the 1957 film Sayonara, Sayuri’s ability only to find freedom within herself is consistent with the overgeneralized Western view of Asian women as exciting and wise, yet guarded and mysterious, thus increasing their sexual appeal (Marchetti, 67).

Just as there are many symbols of Sayuri’s innocence and transcendent freedom in Memoirs of a Geisha, symbols of Sayuri’s imprisonment echo throughout the film, demonstrating the