I have come to accept that with book to movie adaptations, things will be tweaked, left out, or over-dramatized when they meant little to the plot of the book. The film version of Memoirs of a Geisha barely captured the spirit of the book, and there was plenty left out that could’ve been added to make it a more effective film.
Of course, all the hype surrounding the fact that most of the leading cast were of Chinese descent – not Japanese – stayed in the back of my mind when I watched it. It was hard for me to suspend my disbelief that they cast Chinese actresses familiar to global audiences in what is essentially a love letter to and about pre- and post-World War II Japan. Maybe because I am of Asian descent and can see the subtleties between the different ethnicities of Asia.
One could make the argument that the book was written by a white guy with a vivid imagination, or that they wanted to sell the movie to a bigger audience. I’m sure there are talented actresses of Japanese descent who could have pulled off the roles, and become bigger stars because of it. Not to mention the wartime atrocities Japan committed against China, but that’s for another article on another day.
The film starts at the tipsy house of Chiyo (the protagonist), and already there is a major change from the book. In the film, Satsu (her older sister) and Chiyo are sold to Mr. Tanaka and are taken from their house against their will. In the book, they spend time with Mr. Tanaka and his family, and Chiyo is under the impression that because her mother is dying and her father is old, Mr. Tanaka will adopt them. But obviously this was changed for dramatic effect.
Maybe this is the Harry Potter geek in me, but I was expecting everyone surprise at Chiyo’s startling eye color (blue-gray, given to her by her mother who had too much water in her, which is related to Chinese astrology) to flick their eyes to her forehead and search for a scar.
The only characters who were close to their book counterparts were Hatsumomo and Pumpkin. What surprised me was that the viewer is given the impression that Pumpkin’s name was given to her before Chiyo ever sets foot in the Nitta okiya. Matter of fact, Chiyo gave Pumpkin and Dr. Crab their nicknames. Hatsumomo was a vindictive bitch in the book, and Gong Li nailed it. She definitely captured the jealous spirit that Hatsumomo was in the book.
I was glad that the film version of Mameha made it a point to explain what a geisha truly is. “Remember Chiyo, geisha are not courtesans, and we’re 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.” That sums up everything well. To the Western world, we assume that they are nothing more than prostitutes, and are still shrouded in mystery to us.
One thing that bothered me was the way Chiyo (Zhang Ziyi) walked in her kimono. Geisha take small steps in their slippers because of how elaborate their kimono is. Ziyi walked as if she were walking in a dress, taking big steps. I know that’s a bit nitpicky, but if you’re gonna be a geisha, own it and do it right. Also, I didn’t see any chemistry between Sayuri and the Chairman throughout the entire film. Well, maybe a little when they first met on the bridge, but even that was platonic chemistry.
Maybe it wasn’t time to do this type of film, though it had the support of some amazing behind the scenes players, such as Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment production company and Rob Marshall (Chicago) because according to its Wikipedia article, “The film had a lukewarm reception critically and financially in the States managing only $57.0 million dollars during its box office run.” That’s pretty sad. I personally made it a point to wait for the DVD, so I could make my own opinions (having read and loved the book).
All in all, the film version of “Memoirs of a Geisha” was a good effort, though it could’ve done much better. I would definitely recommend reading the book.