This film is a story about a poor girl sold to an Okiya (geisha house) who became a celebrity geisha of sort in her own time (1929). As she rose from an all around punching bag to become a maiko (geisha apprentice) learning all those artistic and social skills a geisha is required to master, I was convinced that Sayuri's profession was really all about an ennobling art. Says Mameha (played by Michelle Yeoh), Sayuri’s mentor: “Remember, Chiyo [Sayuri’s name when she was a girl], geisha are not courtesans. And we are 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.”
Artists, indeed but when the geisha house started the buzz for the auctioning of Sayuri’s virginity to the highest bidder, that’s when I started to feel uncomfortable. Coming home from her misuagi, her devirginization, she was greeted by the Mother, who told her “Now, you are a true geisha.”
Maybe a geisha is ultimately a whore. No, an artist who is also whore. Or a whore who is an artist. Was Sayuri really no different from our local “movie stars” who, rumors say, also sell their virtues to business tycoons or the highest bidders?
In her time, becoming a geisha could have been some kind of cool, probably our own version of the “movie celebrities” who move around high society. Says Sayuri as the girl Chiyo: “I changed from a girl facing nothing but emptiness, to someone with purpose. I saw that to be a geisha could be a stepping stone to something else...a place in [this] world.”
Sayuri’s fate suddenly changed with the onset of World War II. One of her patrons, a business tycoon named Nobu saved her life by hiding her off somewhere in a kimono making shop. Years after the war, Nobu came begging Sayuri to don her kimono once more so he could show her off to American military officials,
We went out of the movie house feeling down. Maybe Sayuri and her kind were really artists but it’s only us men—nay, the lusts of economically and politically powerful men that control peoples' destinies—that are really making them into what they are not.
s we walk down away from the theaters, Sayuri’s words were drumming into my consciousness: “She paints her face to hide her face. Her eyes are deep water. It is not for Geisha to want. It is not for geisha to feel. Geisha is an artist of the floating world. She dances, she sings. She entertains you, whatever you want. The rest is shadows, the rest is secret.”
Yes, it was not for a geisha even to fall in love. And that's Sayuri’s greatest tragedy of all.