Hollywood geishas infuriate Japanese and Chinese public

The national pride of Japan is hit hard as a new film by Rob Mashall Memoirs of a Geisha presents Japanese traditions in a very Americanized way

Those who have read a novel by Arthur Golden will be probably pleased with the fact that Memoirs of a Geisha is a rare film in terms of being true to the book it is based on. However, the post-war scenes of the film are rather Americanized, which led to a protest in Asia. American critics say that the film aroused indignation in Japan and China. Not only does it stars Chinese actresses as the main characters, it was filmed in California other than in Kyoto that is a traditional place for geishas.

In Japanese geisha means the person of the art and these girls see themselves as the followers of such traditions as tea ceremony, ikebana and poetry. Traditionally these women insist that rich men pay for their talents and polite conversation but not for the sexual services. Both Arthur Golden's bestseller and the new film show how young geishas, who are only starting to master different skills, sell their virginity to those who pay the best. According to geishas, it offends their profession. 

Steven Spielberg was going to make a film version of Memoirs of a Geisha for a long time. He said he believed in love at first sight and that was what the book was all about. Spielberg obtained the film rights of the novel eight years ago. In 1998 he claimed he was going to start the filming. Nevertheless, his dreams never came true: being busy with numerous other projects Spielberg was satisfied with the role of producer this time. The director of the film turned out to be Rob Marshall. This film is his first work after the Oscar-winning film version of Chicago musical.

The main character is played by Zhang Ziyi who has recently become the sex-symbol of the Asian cinema. She is known to general audience for her roles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers. It would be worth mentioning that the looks of Chinese actresses are truly impressive and an average non-Asian cinemagoer would not bother national peculiarities of the Chinese faces and would easily mistake them for Japanese ones. This is where the authors placed their bets on. The most important for drama is to make the audience fall in love with the main female characters just as the male characters do. 

Memoirs of a Geisha budget amounted to $90 million that were spent on plenty flowers on screen and shots of exquisite beauty. Music has become – as it is true for any film about love – one of the main characters. The Soundtrack was written by John Williams, the winner of fiveAcademy awards. Theshooting took place in Los Angeles. Filmmakers thought the Kyoto's Gion district, which is the setting in the novel, has become too modern and cannot reproduce the atmosphere of the 1920s-1930s. Some scenes were filmed in Hakone Japanese garden and tea-houses where the film crew managed to spoil a considerable number of rare Japanese handmade carpets.

The story of Memoirs is told by the famous geisha Sayuri who was sent to work as a servant in a geisha house as a small girl. Blossoming she discovers all the secrets of the ancient profession and becomes a great master of her art. She is able to captivate any man besides the one she falls in love with. Being a mater of seduction Sayuri falls in love with a powerful official – the Chairman - who is beyond her reach. The secrets of this passionate love are known to her diary only: the main rule of geisha is that they have no right for desires and feelings. Geisha works for men, for every man. She is not allowed to fall in love with any of them. Nevertheless, Sayuri breaks this rule. This is the main conflict in the story that is spiced up with all other constituents of a well-thought drama: rivalry, envy, passion and loneliness.

Despite beautiful setting and Japanese flavor, the national pride of the Land of the Rising Sun was hit hard. All of the leading actresses – Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li – are Chinese. Chinese people were also infuriated by such a choice. One of the Chinese websites criticized Zhang Ziyi severely for playing “a Japanese prostitute” and a lover of a Japanese guy played by handsome Ken Watanabe. One of the website visitors wrote: “Sleeping with a Japanese for money is disgusting. She humiliated all Chinese people”.

Famous Chinese director Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine) said: “Chinese women cannot play geishas. This is an ancient tradition of the Japanese culture. The way they walk, hold the fan, smile, look at other people…In order to make these gestures and face expressions look right you have to grow up in Japan. But probably American producers do not care”.

It has to be mentioned that Rob Marshall treated ethnocultural peculiarities of the material too freely. Maybe he thought that if the film was based on American novel it would be needless to pay attention to the details and credibility. To please Western public kimonos of the female characters are too sexy. Besides, the filmmakers did not use the traditional white make-up of a geisha that could seem unattractive and even ugly to the foreigners. Instead they took the best of the modern make-up industry.

Leon Zhabin

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Author`s name Olga Savka