Who are geisha, these women of the floating world, whose image is so often associated with femininity in Japan? In the west, geisha are often mistaken for high-class prostitutes – which is a misconception even some Japanese continue to have. Geisha are entertainers, thoroughly trained in traditional arts such as music and dance. The world of the geisha is a complicated web of money, social responsibilities, debts, relations with men, relations with women, and the art of being living, breathing entertainment. The individual's struggle to keep all of these complications in balance makes the geisha's life an inherently fascinating, and cinematic, story. Japanese cinema has a long history of portraying geisha on film, and Hollywood has even taken an interest, cashing in on the appeal of the exotic in the 2005 film Memoirs of a Geisha.
Memoirs of a Geisha was directed by Rob Marshall, and was adapted from the novel of the same name, written by Arthur Golden. The story follows Sayuri on her journey from being a servant to becoming an accomplished giesha. The film obsessively follows the details of Sayuri's training – her dance lessons, her music practices, the art of dressing in a kimono – and revels in the exoticism of the geisha experience. When Sayuri first gets her hair done up in the traditioanl style, she must sleep on a special propped up pillow surrounded by a circle of rice. When she wakes up, her hair is covered in rice because she fell off her pillow, and her hair is ruined. The film makes a great deal of the pain and preparation of becoming a geisha to emphasize to the audience how strange and foreign these practices are. Yet these glimpses are merely surface level – never is the audience truly brought into Sayuri's inner world.
This is the problem with Memoirs – the struggles of its characters are all surface-level, or flimsy external constructions. For a film so obsessed with the exotic in Japanese culture, the conflicts brought upon its subjects are decidedly Hollywood. The opening scene shows Sayuri and her sister being bought from her family and carted away from their hometown – only for Sayuri to be sold to the okiya, the geisha house, and her sister to be sold to a whore house. Instantly, the life of a geisha is equated with slavery and forced labor. Being a geisha is not something a girl chooses to do, but is forced into.
Sayuri fights against this fate at first, but her perceptions rapidly shift when she meets Chairman Iwamura by chance on the streets of Kyoto. She instantly falls in love with him, and sees that becoming a geisha will allow her to grow closer to him. Thus, she throws herself into the diligent studies needed to become a geisha. Here a love story is substituted for any kind of self-actualization or reflection for Sayuri. She exists to become the perfect woman for the Chairman, and to become that woman she must become a geisha. There is no concept of being a geisha so that she can be a financially independent woman, or so she can support herself. The film does not explore the questions of what happens when personal and professional boundaries are crossed. Sayuri at one point is sexually harassed by a patron, but the film does not venture deeper into the concept of the systematic objectification of women that geisha can fall prey to. These are not the conflicts the film is invested in – it is invested in the love of the Chairman and Sayuri, and the dramatic external forces, like World War II, that keep them apart.
There is one scene which suggests that there is more to Sayuri than just her persuit of the Chairman. When her mentor suggests that Sayuri take on a patron because it is her best choice for supporting herself, Sayuri refuses and shouts back, “I want a life that is mine!” Here is the idea that is unexplored in the film – the opportunity to build a private identity within the structure of the geisha lifestyle.
The work of Kenji Mizoguchi delves into the conflicts inherent in these social structures. In his 1953 film, Gion Bayashi (A Geisha), Mizoguchi portrays two geisha – one an older, established giesha, Miyoharu, who takes in a pupil, Eiko. Unlike in Memoirs, the geisha of Gion Bayashi are not portrayed as slaves or women cut off from any family connections. Eiko's mother was a geisha and was friends with Miyoharu, thus why Eiko saught Miyoharu out after her mothers death. Eiko is not forced into becoming a geisha – she begs Miyoharu to train her. She longs to become like the maiko (young, elaborately dressed geisha)she sees on postcards from Kyoto.
After Miyoharu takes Eiko under her wing, she is quickly trained and then brought into society as a maiko. It is here where the tangled webs of loyalties and monetary transactions become entangled with Miyoharu's and Eiko's personal priorities. Miyoharu and Eiko are pursued by two business men, Kanzaki and Kusuda, who both desire more than just artistic entertainment from the women, in exchange for financial security. On a disastrous trip to Tokyo, Kusuda tries to force himself onto Eiko – and to protect herself, she bites and severely wounds his face. Hearing her screems from a room close by, Miyoharu runs to Eiko's aid – and finds her dazed, her face covered in blood, her hair and kimono askew. The image of the immaculate maiko that Eiko so coveted is now shockingly destroyed and subverted.
Eiko's image of the geisha is further complicated and tarnished in the ensuing difficulties surrounding this incident. They find themselves blacklisted from all of the tea houses they used to frequent, because of Eiko's supposed misbehavior. Miyoharu becomes desperate to keep themselves from being swallowed by debt, and agrees to become Kanzaki's mistress so that she may protect Eiko's integrity. Eiko is disgusted by this idea, but can see that Miyoharu saw no other way out of the situation.
What Gion Bayashi lacks in the glamor and gloss displayed by a film like Memoirs of a Geisha, it makes up for tenfold in its fearlessness in portraying the dichotomies inherent in the geisha world. Geisha depend upon each other, and the bond between Miyoharu and Eiko is ultimately the most important one – yet they also depend financially on the support of their male patrons. Miyoharu especially struggles with having to protect Eiko, keep them financially stable, and still maintain her self dignity – which in the end proves to be a nearly impossible task. Gion Bayashi, in contrast to the flashier Memoirs, shows that the conflict in a film does not have to evolve from a forced love story and a world war.