Memoirs of a Geisha – Story of Another Kind


Memoirs of a Geisha (Rob Marshall, 2005) is a Hollywood production which tells the life story of a geisha called Chiyo/Sayuri. An adaptation, the movie was based on the historical novel of the same name written by American author Arthur Golden, whose story was based on interviews with real geisha Mineko Iwasaki. The film celebrates geisha by clearly distinguishing their work as art and not merely prostitution, but simultaneously discourages female independence under the context of traditional Japanese culture as well as female’s contemporary social positions. Memoirs of a Geisha exploits this stereotypical female subordination under classical patriarchy to evoke Asian authenticity.

Set during the time frame of World War II, the film has the potential to address political tensions and historical inaccuracies. To an extent, the film acknowledges the negative effects of American occupation of Japan, but softens the blow by representing Americans in negative but historically accurate portrayal in a modern-day multicultural coexistence mentality. This representation thereby asserts US’s current progressive multicultural climate. Hollywood creates a connection between the Western audience and Asian characters by executing familiar themes such as being unable to openly love who you want, as well as the subjugation of female sexuality. However, these familiar themes cast the Japanese culture as morally inferior to Western standards. The film’s educational and political value are further impaired by the implementation of excessive Asian cultural elements and exaggeration of romance as a cinematic device. The film follows the tradition of classical Asian themed Hollywood movies, in which Asian females are redeemed from oppressive Asian traditions by men who are westernized to a certain extent. Although the film enjoyed financial and cinematic success in the West (with 6 Academy Award nominations and winning three), the casting of Chinese actresses, and the film’s failure to address historical and political tension between China and Japan, caused backlashes from Asian communities within the US and overseas.


Individual Analysis:


Film adaptations endeavor to faithfully depict the source, but can also improvise through film’s visual and aural aspects. The cinematography and music of Memoirs of a Geisha, however, are unfortunately subjected to the Hollywood treatment. As a result, the film’s credibility is greatly subverted.

The camera most frequently alternates between an objective viewpoint and Chiyo’s, both of which belie the film’s apparently authentic depiction of geisha. These perspectives highlight the tendencies of Hollywood narrative structure and techniques: the audience’s identification with a “male gaze” and the emphasis on the individual, which respectively objectifies the women and dramatizes the romance. For example, the camera seems to take unnecessary liberties when “demystifying” the training and development of geisha. Chiyo’s transformation into Sayuri is depicted the typical uplifting montage, and also features a bathing scene. The justification for female nudity is slim: Chiyo and Mameha’s moment in the communal bath arguably connotes the intimacy of the mentor/mentee relationship, but so do their other numerous interactions.

Thus, the “illuminating” camera simultaneously indulges in the geisha “mystery”. The secrecy and intricacy of geisha ceremonies, dance, and even clothing produces the pleasure of investigation and unveiling. The enticement to discover is affirmed at the film’s onset, when the narrator (interestingly voiced by Shizuko Hoshi and not Ziyi Zhang) states, “A story like mine should never be told, for my world is as forbidden as it is fragile. Without its mysteries, it cannot survive.” The invitation tantalizes: the hidden, secret geisha world is now on display for the film’s audience.


There is a decidedly satisfying component to the act of looking and revealing, which is actualized on screen when the Baron gifts a kimono to Chiyo and then “just takes a look.” His stripping is prolonged by the complexity of the kimono’s several layers of robes and Chiyo’s ineffectual protest (informative regarding geisha dress and the geisha’s subordinate position in society) but while the sexual assault is highly discomfiting, it’s likely that the audience’s sympathy is surpassed by their furtive enjoyment – the audience shares the Baron’s privilege to look and luxuriate. Although the voyeuristic quality of the stripping scene could (and should) remind the audience of their paralleled voyeurism, the Hollywood cinematography disguises the looking process, and makes immediate critical assessment difficult.

However, the audience should recognize that the depiction of Kyoto and geisha is through a Western lens that reduces, if not trivializes, the actual difficulties of the geisha life. The artistry and elegance of the cinematography in part captures the essence geisha strive for – fragility, delicacy, and beauty, but the film’s beauty also reinforces a Western conception of the Orient as something exotic and foreign. Similarly, the film’s original score composed by John Williams features cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Ithzak Perlman. Even disregarding the fact that the film may have capitalized on “star power” to grab attention (and nab some awards), the selection of a Western composer and instruments, while resulting in a beautiful soundtrack, equates to an inauthentic depiction of WWII Kyoto.

The soundtrack parallels the camera’s focus on Sayuri, as it features multiple variations of Sayuri’s theme. The variations chart her development through the movie, but more importantly, intertwine her progress with the romantic plot. Likewise, the camera’s insistence on detailing the development of Chiyo and the Chairman’s love limits Memoirs of a Geisha’s potential to trite Hollywood romance. Chiyo suffers various indignities and tragedies, such as the stripping and her parents’ death, but she is very much a romanticized figure, and the montage format of her transformation attests to her uncommon genius. The film may be the memoirs of a geisha, but they are the memoirs of a remarkable one. (Pumpkin, Mameha, and Hatsumomo offer alternative paths, but they are marginalized in comparison.)

sumo match

The driving impulse behind Chiyo’s actions, and thus the film, is her love for the Chairman. She becomes a geisha to become “closer to his world” and she preserves mementos of him: the handkerchief and a newspaper clipping, carefully and secretly. Her actions bespeak of a constant and enduring love, and accordingly, the camera diligently captures and lingers upon their brief interactions. Each scene including Chiyo and the Chairman functions to develop the romantic tension and romantic plot, and are edited to connect shots of the two romantic leads. When advised by Mameha to target Nobu during the sumo match, Chiyo, and thus the camera’s attention, remains affixed to the Chairman, and the concluding scene intimately accents the couple with rack focus. The film creates the Hollywood expectation of romance, and neatly resolves the romance in the end. Chiyo, unremarkably, is the sole geisha to realize her love.

The individual perspective of Chiyo and the romance serves to reduce the distance between the West and the unfamiliar and unknown Orient. Love and Hollywood romance is familiar and renders the geisha relatable to (Western) audiences who can more readily identify with these women who feel envy, love, ambition, and sorrow. Chiyo and her fellow geisha are humanized, and “authentically” revealed to live very dehumanized existences, but the film capitalizes upon the allure of the Orient. Therefore, while decades removed from the exploitative expeditionary films of the 1920’s, Memoirs of a Geisha suffers from the Hollywood “magic” that utilizes the exotic to revamp and disguise the familiar – in this case, the trite love story.


In the film Memoirs of a Geisha, the usage of water symbolism and imagery in accordance with the character of Chiyo, or Sayuri as she is known at an older age, follows her for the entire film, and even marks important milestones in her life. In Japanese culture, the element of water is often associated with adaptation and change, especially from a mental and/or emotional standpoint, and can be both a relaxing and a destructive force. Chiyo’s/Sayuri’s growth from a young servant girl to one of the most sought after geisha in her district and the factors of such that fell in between definitely marks a transformation that is appropriate for this element.

Chiyo's EyesWhat is perhaps the most defining feature of Chiyo’s/Sayuri’s are her eyes, which are a clear blue like the prettiest river or stream. This is definitely a rarity for a Japanese person, especially with the strong assumption that neither of her parents, and potentially grandparents, are of European origin (as being such would make this a genetic possibility). She is seen as being so full of the water element that her eyes are blue as a consequence of it. At the beginnings of the film, when Chiyo and her sister Satsu are sold away to become geisha a rain storm is occurring, drenching the two girls as they are taken away from their home. Grief and sadness fill not only the hearts of the girls but each and every rain drop that falls from the sky.

In the words of okaasan, or the mother of the okiya Chiyo/Sayuri grows up in, her eyes indicate that she has “too much water”. In a rebuttal to this statement, the auntie of the okiya expresses that “water is a good guard against fire… [and that] you don’t have to worry about the okiya burning….” Here, water, or Chiyo/Sayuri, is seen as having potentially being an issue due to the imbalance of this element in her. At the same time, she is also seen as also being a worthy protective for the equally formidable element of fire, which upon further development of the film can be associated with the beautiful but highly dangerous Hatsumomo. Even more so, when Hatsumomo peers into the face of Chiyo/Sayuri for the first time and sees her eyes, her confident and assertive demeanor falters as this “woman of fire” realizes that the “girl of water” is a potential threat to her.

Relevant to her embodiment of the water element is a comment made by the famous geisha Mameha, who takes Sayuri under her tutelage in becoming a geisha herself. Just as famous as Hatsumomo but much more benevolent, Mameha tells Sayuri that “water is powerful… it can wash away earth, put out fire, and even destroy iron.” While at this point in the film Sayuri hasn’t developed her confidence and strength as a person or aspiring geisha yet, she surely has the potential in Mameha’s eyes. The fact that she was seen as once having “too much water”, or being a troubling force to reckon with, and now being someone with the a ability to extinguish a volatile being, which is Hatsumomo, exemplifies the ability of water to shift and change its form accordingly.

In the scene that Hatsumomo and Sayuri have their “showdown” in Sayuri’s room in the okiya—which was formerly Hatsumomo’s—a fire breaks during the struggle. Hatsumomo, now clearly mentally unstable, takes more oil lamps and spreads the flames to the hallway. Her destructive and disruptive behavior comes at a cost of her prestige, her residence in the okiya, and her reputation. Now shamed and exiled, the scene ends with her leaving the okiya completely defeated, with Sayuri looking on from a window in the charred bedroom. Water has successfully extinguished the fire for once and for all. The following scene shows the fight from start to finish.

Sea CliffThe symbolism of water takes an even more literal meaning for Sayuri’s emotions after the scene where Sayuri is seen by the Chairman instead of Nobu-san having sex with an American soldier at the hot springs. Standing atop a cliff overlooking the sea, she releases the handkerchief of the Chairman’s that he gave her in her youth into the windy air, with the choppy waves nearly surrounding her completely. The tumult and anguish she feels in her heart mirrors the waves crashing harshly against the rocks of the cliff below.

There is a peaceful calm in Sayuri’s life after this event, however. She and the Chairman meet and reconcile not long after the cliff scene, and as they confess their love to each other followed by a loving kiss and embrace, the quiet but soothing sound of the pond in which they are situated in the middle of (inside a small shelter with a path) is heard. As the narrator brings the film to a close, the couple is seen walking together reflected in that very same pond, which is clear, calm and beautiful. Reflection

From the moment Sayuri is sold out of her old life and is forced into the world of geisha, she is seen as, characterized and shaped by the element of water and many of the forms it can take. Chiyo/Sayuri is water, and water is in Chiyo/Sayuri.



Memoirs of a Geisha is a Hollywood production directed by Rob Marshall, which tells the life story of a Geisha called Chiyo/Sayuri; the movie was based on the historical novel of the same name written by American author Arthur Golden, whose story was based on interviews with real Geisha Mineko Iwasaki. As Sayuri’s story unfolds, the plot also deals with themes about female agency vs. social/moral structures and restrictions, the duplicity and mysteriousness of (Asian) female sexuality, American occupation over Japan after WWII and, of course, romance—a staple cinematic element without which Hollywood films would not be complete.

Under the proud Anglo-European tradition of Orientalism, which feminizes all of Asian countries and their inhabitants regardless of gender (among other oppressive discourses), Asia is perhaps most familiar to Western imagination when personified as the “veiled woman”. But how should one understand the “veiled-ness” of Asian women? Beside structural patriarchal containment of women from public gaze, women can also be veiled by clothing, makeup, traditions, and transcendence of femininity into ritualistic art forms—as is the case of Japanese Geishas. The secretive world of elegant and masked (literally with make up and figuratively with ritualized mannerisms) Geishas is one operated by women. It promises an elusive vacation from ordinary life into ultimate feminine entertainment, and has long been the fascination of both Japanese and foreign men—in Mameha’s words: “Geisha are not courtesans. And we are not wives. We sell our skills, not our bodies. We create another secret world, a place only of beauty. The very word ‘geisha’ means artist and to be a geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art” (Memoirs of a Geisha, 2005). From the film’s depiction, becoming a geisha is anything but easy. And although it rewards geishas a facade of glamorous, carefree life style with agency and independence that most Japanese women do not have, most geisha did not choose this path for themselves. They are forced into the consuming industry by extraordinary circumstances—for example, Sayuri was sold into the Okiya by her own father, probably for money to treat her mother’s illness—and are forever bound and responsible to her “family” in the Okiya. She cannot pursue personal interests and goals and, most tragically from a Western/Hollywood perspective, geisha cannot enjoy love freely. memoirs-of-a-geisha-hq-set2-07 The transcendent geisha art.


The film went to great lengths to portray the extravagant making of a geisha, and Sayuri is obviously empowered and emboldened by the art of geisha, the makeup and clothing. After Sayuri was deemed ready, she and Mameha began their plot to defeat Hatsumomo, and in the process, successfully manipulated men of great social, political, and financial statuses. Sayuri utilizes her own female sexuality, which is intensified with geisha aesthetics, to obtain financial and social stability, and to one day be with the Chairman. However, this manipulative, mysterious, and therefore potentially threatening (to men) female sexuality is punished. Audiences can look at Hatsumomo’s fate and easily predict that of Sayuri’s given their similarity—but the plot took a sharp turn when WWII struck Japan.

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Contrasting Sayuri’s mannerism, ensemble before and after the WWII broke out, the audience can tell that the socioeconomic and political climates can no longer support art forms as extravagant as geisha houses.

Symbolically, wartime and military occupation, which are usually characterized as masculine powers, have stripped Sayuri of her independence and female sexuality. The blurred line between geisha and common prostitutes, a distinction that was previously repeatedly reinforced with a sense of pride, further disarms Sayuri by undermining the moral superiority and social status she channels from being a learned female geisha/artist. She is further punished when she seduces the American Lieutenant in attempt to dissuade Nobu from becoming her danna. Due to Pumpkin’s betrayal/revenge, Sayuri’s plan fails miserably, causing her to lose Nobu’s financial support and the Chairman’s affection. At this point, Sayuri is completely defeated. Her last stretch for independence—epitomized as Western notions of redemptive love in typical Hollywood fashion—dissolves into resignation as she discards the Chairman’s handkerchief and declares: “no geisha can ever hope for more” (Memoirs of a Geisha, 2005) when she prepares to meet with Nobu once again—this time to accept him as her danna. – Clip: Sayuri’s resignation.

However, Memoirs of a Geisha is ultimately a Hollywood chick flick and therefore romance must have the last word: Just as Sayuri loses all aspirations in life, the Chairman miraculously appears and declares his love for Sayuri despite Pumpkin’s sabotage, and reveals his secret endeavors that have helped Sayuri become the greatest geisha in Kyoto. The Chairman and Sayuri kiss, and walk off to happy-ever-after. This ending—in which the heroine is saved from her unfortunate circumstances by men through transcendent love—is a common Hollywood resolution to the conflicts developed throughout a film. Compared to Mameha and Hatsumomo, who also possess unchecked and manipulative female sexuality but have less-than-desirable endings, Sayuri was “lucky” to have her transgressive femininity stripped away by uncontrollable circumstances. Her vulnerability and submission to traditional ideals of femininity at the end of the movie have prepared, and allowed, her for the Chairman’s redemptive love.

Ultimately, Memoirs of a Geisha maintains traditional gender roles, polices female independence and sexuality, re-presents Asian subjects as exotic Others with multiple contradictions, and evoke other stereotypes of Asia in an exploitative attempt to create Asian authenticity. Other than that, Memoirs of a Geisha is truly a magnificent and beautiful piece of cinematography.


“Hollywood Themes Utilized to Create Sympathy from Western Audiences”

Jordan Cheresnowsky

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.”18867800.jpg-r_640_600-b_1_D6D6D6-f_jpg-q_x-xxyxxWere 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 ( 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, Screen Shot 2013-02-11 at 4.31.37 PMthe 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.


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