The film, "Memoirs of a Geisha" (based on a novel by Arthur Golden) has recently been released in DVD, so I thought I      would review the film for this occasion. First off, I will address the frequently asked question regarding whether or not this film should have starred major Chinese and Malaysian actresses instead of Japanese actresses. I will say, upfront, that I believe strongly that this film should have featured Japanese actresses. I am a devoted fan of the Chinese women who starred in the film (Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi) and the Malaysian actress, Michelle Yeoh. They are highly talented, beautiful actresses that gave outstanding performances and are also well known, box office stars. I know that there are many folks, including some Asians and Asian Americans, who don't see the big deal in whether or not the main characters were played by Chinese or Japanese actresses.
      Yet, here was an opportunity to highlight and to introduce us to exceptional, strong Japanese actresses, lesser known perhaps, but fresh faces to the majority of Americans, who could give power and a sense of history, from within their bones, to the film. And too, this was an opportunity missed, to educate the general public, raise the standard on history and cultural      awareness, through the vehicle of a well-known book, popular in the United States, so that folks could rise above their "culturally sensitive smugness" and finally understand and realize that there are significant differences, as well as similarities, among the Chinese and Japanese cultures ... and that it was worthwhile to know and understand these differences. Hearing the Japanese language spoken with English subtitles would have been my preference in this film. We learn and gain a great deal about a culture, the humanity, personalities and aesthetics,  through our senses and intellect, when we hear the distinct music and      poetry of a non-English spoken language.
       What we lost in this film was depth. What we had was, to some large degree, perpetuation of the stereotype that a) it doesn';t matter because there is no difference between Asians and b) although a different aspect of the geisha life was presented, Japanese geishas are already familiar to Americans. Don't  get me wrong. I think it is good to depict the underside of the geisha life and persona. The politics, the abuse, selling of young girls, groomed to become glorified prostitutes is not pretty. The "grooming" practice mirrors the behaviors of child sexual abuse perpetrators who groom their victims over time to control, manipulate and exploit them. But, there is more to Japanese culture than the geisha and not all Japanese women are      geishas.
       A question I often ask, in viewing an Asian film is, "What's new and different in how it enriches, deepens, broadens the image and understanding of Asian Americans and Asian history and culture within the western mainstream? Yes, "Memoirs of a      Geisha" was a good book and beautiful film. The textures and colors of the kimonos and physical beauty of landscapes and characters were mesmerizing at times. Geishas were presented to some degrees as more personal and as individuals. But, "House of Flying Daggers" was visually more stunning. Even the TV series "Shogun," and the film from the '50s, "Sayonara," had more impact on the general public as far as bringing a new perspective on how Americans viewed Japan. The TV series as well as the Marlon Brando/Miko Taka film, promoted and exposed Japanese culture in a positive way. "Sayonara" over-idealized      geishas, but there was a respect of the culture, even if superficial.
      Another aspect that disturbed me in "Memoirs," in the movie, was the "happily ever after" ending.  "True love" prevailed for the main character, Sayuri san, though she continued, in the background, to be the mistress of her true love, the  "Chairman," who was married and had two children. Not exactly a feminist movie. At least the book ending was more realistic. The main      character ends up having to leave Japan with her "illegitimate" child and live in the United States, leaving her "true love" and her country, so that one of the Chairman's "legitimate" children's spouse-to-be, in-line to take over the Chairman's position, could be instated. Though, again, sacrificing as a woman in Japan, I preferred that ending to the Cinderella ending in the movie.
      There is a book, however, that I highly recommend, called
Geisha, A Life, written by Minako Iwasaki with Rande Brown. Minado was an actual Japanese geisha, born in 1949 and began training when she was five. Minako tried to change the economic and social structure from within, for geishas to develop a more independent geisha-controlled system that included health benefits and educational and economic opportunities. At 29 years of age, she retired and now lives in Kyoto with her husband and daughter. There are and were many notable Japanese women, like Minako, who have, despite major cultural, economic and family pressures and obstacles stand as leaders, throughout Japanese history and in modern Japan as well. They made notable contributions in their fields, including the political, artistic, health/sciences, education, social and business      worlds. I would love to learn more about these women and I think other Americans would too.
Asian Slant/Sharyl Kato
On "Memoirs of a Geisha"
July 2006 Issue Preview