Continuing to watch movies at home that we never saw in the theatre, yesterday it was MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA. Not having read the book I took the film at face value and thought it was both moving and gorgeously made. The cinematography and costumes (Academy Awards in both categories), the marvelous score (John Williams, with solo turns by Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman), as well as the depiction of a tradition which was swallowed up by World War II keep the senses rapt while the personal stories of the girls who have ended up - for various reasons - in the world of the geishas unfold against harrowing world events.
At a very young age Sayuri is sold with her sister by their impoverished father to a 'geisha mother'. The girls are separated in the city and grow up in different geisha houses which are filled with intrigue and betrayal. Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) crosses the path of the established ruling geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li) who manipulates and taunts the girl. Sayuri's unhappy world is brightened in a momentary encounter with The Chairman (Ken Watanabe), a rich gentleman whose kindness Sayuri can never forget; she carries the image of The Chairman with her, along with his handkerchief, as a symbol of unattainable love.
As Sayuri matures into a delicate beauty, she is taken under the protection of the prosperous and gentle Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) who prepares Sayuri for her debut. In the course of her training Sayuri again encounters The Chariman but the culture of manners prevents her from revealing her feelings to him. Instead she draws the affection of his disfigured friend Nobu (Koji Yakusho). In a ritual bidding war for Sayuri's virginity, Mameha manipulates the outcome. In the meanwhile, Hatsumomo's jealousy at being displaced by Sayuri causes a violent struggle and a fire which destroys the geisha house.
As World War II breaks over Japan, The Chairman and Nobu arrange for Sayuri to escape to the countryside where she spends five years laboring in poverty. The final devastation of the war seems to put an end to any hope Sayuri might have but unexpectedly she is called back into the world of the geisha as a powerful American officer has become smitten with her photograph. The Chairman needs the friendship of this officer for business purposes, and Sayuri, out of loyalty and love, returns to the city. She finds that the refinement and sophisticated sensuality that marked the geisha's life has been replaced by a garish mockery of that world; her friend Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh) still dresses in geisha style but there the similarities end: the new crop of 'geishas' are just cheap parodies, common prostitutes who carouse with the Americans for a few bucks. Into this new world, Sayuri must try to revive her life.
No spoilers for those who haven't seen it! The unusual casting of three of China's outstanding actresses (Zhang, Li & Yeoh) strikes a slightly jarring note but their performances shine. Gong Li's English is not always clear, but she plays a bitch to the hilt while still gaining our sympathy not only as she is displaced in the hierarchy but also: she has to hide her own secret love affair for a young general. Li, always a remarkable beauty, has matured in a state of grace. Ziyi Zhang gains admiration not just for her lovely visage and demure demeanor but also for her nuanced performance in a world where the real thing is never said or done. Michelle Yeoh gives a virtuoso performance as the kind and practical Mameha, incredibly poignant as she discovers her own protector has fallen for Sayuri. Youki Kudoh (so touching in SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS) paints a skillful portrait of a young girl who moves from a culture where the showing of a wrist was considered highly suggestive to a world where all sense of decorum (and sobriety) has vanished. Mssers. Watanabe and Yakusho reveal their feelings towards Sayuri in subtle ways, yet one cannot tell til the end how things will fall out.
Visually and musically the movie is a breathtaking backdrop for the depiction of a changing world. Now I will read the book; people who did so before seeing the film were disappointed so maybe in a way it's worked out better for me.