Memoirs of a Geisha
This is why you don’t store sake near the fireplace.

Golden Mug

WINNER: Supporting Actor (Ken Watanabe), Art Direction (Patrick M. Sullivan Jr. & Tomas Voth), Costume Design (Colleen Atwood), Makeup
NOMINEE: Supporting Actress (Gong Li), Adapted Screenplay (Robin Swicord-screenplay, Arthur Golden-novel), Score (John Williams)

Theatrical Release Date: 12/09/2005
Director: Rob Marshall
Cast: Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li, Ken Watanabe, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Kôji Yakusho, Youki Kudoh, Michelle Yeoh

In “Memoirs of a Geisha”, a young Japanese girl is sold into servitude, eventually becomes a Geisha, and tries to carve out a happy life for herself. Wow is that oversimplification, but to say much more would ruin the journey so I’ll leave it at that.

The book, written by Arthur Golden, was a bestseller and this project has been much anticipated, at least by me, for over a year. At one point, Steven Spielberg was going to helm the ship but he eventually had to bow out and was relegated to production duties. Instead, “Chicago” Rob Marshall was eventually given the job.

Let me be frank. I didn’t like “Chicago”. I thought the casting of Richard Gere and Renée Zellweger was a mistake. I think people only really gravitated to the film because it was the return of the musical to the big screen. I still don’t understand how “The Pianist” could have won best director, screenplay, actor and score the same year and not won Best Picture. But that’s Hollywood for you, I guess.

That being said, Marshall has delivered “Geisha” in spectacular form and it is easily one of the best movies of the year. I’ll get to the big controversy later, but first I must heap praise on some of the actors in the film.

Ziyi Zhang plays the main character and gives a strong performance. I was more impressed with her previous role in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, but this was excellent as well. I was, however, very impressed with the actress who played her younger character-self, Suzuka Ohgo. Ohgo’s desperation and heartbreak were clearly evident and I hope to see more from this actress in the future.

Gong Li plays the rival Geisha to Zhang and should easily garner some best supporting actress nominations. Her portrayal of a mean, jealous and overbearing rival was spot on.

Ken Watanabe plays the Chairman of a large business and the fantasized ideal for Zhang’s character. Every little thing Watanabe did was perfect. Another easy pick for an Academy Award nomination in my opinion. Even when he wasn’t speaking, his posture and glances conveyed everything.

Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Kôji Yakusho, Youki Kudoh and Michelle Yeoh round out the main cast and are all absolutely perfect for their roles. There are no problems with the actors’ abilities in this film to provide rich and interesting characters for the audience to latch onto.

Now to the salacious tidbits. The controversy surrounding this film stems from the fact that all of the main female leads are Chinese, whereas the film is about Japanese Geisha. Yes, there is a little cultural insensitivity here, especially because the art of Geisha is so important to Japanese history and culture but I think people are going a little too overboard.

Unfortunately, in order to make a feature film in today’s climate, financiers want to make sure they will get a return on their money and sometimes filmmakers have to choose well-recognized actors, rather than possibly more talented unknowns. While it is a depressing fact, that’s how things are in the real world.

Even with the wrong ancestry, the actresses all provide stellar performances and slide into their characters with grace and confidence. The bigger problem in my estimation is that the film is in English, rather than Japanese with English subtitles.

I read the book some time ago and realize the author is American and this is a fictional story. Still, when translating it to the big screen, a better sense of authenticity (cast origin notwithstanding) could have been made. I would like not to think that the film is in English rather than Japanese to keep the hopes alive of garnering a Best Picture Academy Award nomination, but I’m a cynic.

Also, according to Marshall, he and the filmmakers decided to go with less traditional costuming and make-up that is more modern than true Geisha. I am disappointed in that as well but have to chalk it up to the realities of making a movie in Hollywood.

The choice at one point to use an American song from the time period because the scene had shifted to American occupied Japan was a mistake I think, as the central character’s perspective should have been preserved. But the rest of the music and score for “Geisha” is fantastic. Though I expect nothing less when you combine John Williams’s genius with the talents of soloists Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma.

All of those negatives aside, the film is a triumph, presenting a world (however adjusted) that is pleasing to the eye and the heart. The performances are first rate and I hope to see many award nominations come the way of this film.

“Memoirs of a Geisha” gets a strong 4 out of 5. It would have been a 5 if the film were in Japanese and some more attention to historical accuracy were observed. This is still one of the top 5 movies of the year and deserves every accolade it can garner.