tek's rating:

Memoirs of a Geisha (PG-13)
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Caution: spoilers.

This is based on a book I never read, which was published in 1997. The movie came out in December of 2005. It's set in the 1930s, at the start of the story. On a personal note, I wanted to mention that at the time the movie came out, The Republic of Tea (my favorite brand of tea) put out a limited edition tin of its spring cherry green tea. I couldn't find it in stores, so I ordered it from the website, early the next year. I didn't get a chance to see the movie in the theater, and it was quite a bit later before I got the DVD, in '07 or '08, I forget. But as is usually the case with me, even then I didn't get around to watching it til quite a bit after that, in February of 2009. By then of course most of the tea was gone, but I'd purposely saved some all that time (three years!), to drink while watching the movie. And it was still quite good.

Anyway... it begins with a 9-year-old girl named Chiyo Sakamoto and her older sister, Satsu, being sold to a man named Tanaka, by their father, who needs the money to help take care of their ailing mother. They're taken from their small fishing village to a hanamachi (geisha district) called Gion, in Kyoto. Chiyo gets sold by Tanaka to one okiya (geisha house), and Satsu was sold elsewhere. For much of the early part of the film, Chiyo is desperate to find her sister, so they can run away together. Chiyo's okiya is run by a retired geisha called "Mother." There, Chiyo befriends a girl called Pumpkin. She's also tormented by a successful geisha named Hatsumomo (Gong Li).

Well... eventually Chiyo finds her sister and they make plans to meet up again, but events make that impossible, so Satsu runs away by herself. And by this time, Chiyo has racked up quite a debt, for various reasons. And then learns that both her parents are dead. She becomes a maid at the okiya, along with Pumpkin. Soon after that, she meets a stranger called the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), who is kind to her, and from that point on is determined to do everything she can get to closer to him. Which basically means becoming a geisha, herself.

The film jumps forward to Chiyo at age 15 (now played by Ziyi Zhang, who will continue to play Chiyo through the rest of the film, as she ages to around 35, I guess; though throughout the entire film, there is narration by a much older Chiyo, who supposedly wrote the titular- fictional- memoirs, voiced by Shizuko Hoshi). Pumpkin is now a maiko (apprentice geisha), about to make her debut. She's trained by Hatsumomo. A successful geisha named Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), who had figured in one of the torments earlier bestowed on Chiyo by Hatsumomo, makes a deal with Mother, to take on Chiyo as a maiko. From now on, Chiyo will refer to Mameha as Oneesan (big sister). And Chiyo is given a new name, Sayuri.

Hatsumomo has always been jealous of Chiyo, and now, along with Pumpkin, seeks to destroy her career. But Sayuri soon makes her debut, and becomes rather famous... And she meets a businessman named Nobu, an associate of the Chairman. Nobu soon takes an interest in her, despite not being a fan of geisha. There is a bidding war on her mizuage (which, as portrayed in the film, basically means her virginity). Nobu's principles preclude him from bidding (and the Chairman certainly wouldn't do anything to interfere with the object of his friend's affection). Um... I won't say how things turn out in this matter, but a couple of people Sayuri had met (who I haven't mentioned) played prominent roles. Anyway, afterwards, Sayuri becomes an official geisha.

It turns out that Mameha's entire interest in Sayuri was to ensure that Mother would "adopt" her instead of Pumpkin as her successor as head of the okiya. (Pumpkin would of course merely be a puppet of Hatsumomo, who couldn't be adopted herself. But she would make life miserable for everyone if she was in control.) Sayuri's friendship with Pumpkin was ruined after she got adopted, and Hatsumomo's fortunes would decline, as well.

The film again jumps forward, to WWII, I guess. Japan is occupied by American forces, and the Chairman and Nobu found a safe place for people like Sayuri. The years pass, without any geisha... or at least, not true geisha, though prostitutes will dress as geisha. The film always made a point of saying that geisha don't sell their bodies, but rather their skills as artists (dancing, singing, serving tea and sake). You know, the whole mizuage thing notwithstanding. Eventually Nobu shows up again and asks the now-adult Sayuri to help him. He wants geisha to perform for an American colonel named Derricks (Ted Levine), who could help him (and the Chairman) rebuild their business, I guess. Anyway, Mameha gives Sayuri a kimono. Sayuri and Pumpkin both entertain the American soldiers, though Pumpkin is now a prostitute. And it seems the Colonel expects Sayuri to do more than dance....

Well... events come to a head with the whole... convoluted situation involving the Colonel, and Nobu, and the Chairman, and Sayuri, and Pumpkin.... It's all rather sad, and causes Sayuri to give up the dreams she's had since she was 9. But at least she reopens the okiya, and takes on a young maiko of her own, resigned to the idea that a geisha can never have love. ...And then, shockingly, there's a happy ending, after all.

Well. Of course this is all fiction, and just as I'm sure the film differs in some details from the novel, both stories differ somewhat from the reality of the world of geisha. And all of it differs from anything resembling believability. And there's something creepy about the idea of a 9-year-old girl falling in love with a grown man who simply offers her some innocent kindness, and remaining in love for no better reason than that one encounter, for the rest of her life. And the idea that he might someday reciprocate those feelings, even if it's after she's grown up. I dunno, it's all rather contrived, but... it's still an engaging enough story. I guess. But what I really enjoyed about the movie is the beautiful score, the beautiful scenery, and the glimpse of the world in which it was all set. Oh, I should mention there was some controversy over the fact that many actresses were Chinese, playing Japanese roles. Well... I hope I'm not forgetting anything I meant to say. But definitely worth watching....

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