Monday, February 27, 2006

Films without borders: "Memoirs of a geisha"

“Memoirs of a Geisha” is a beautiful film. But it is a troubling kind of film. As I entered the world of Nitta Sayuri (Zhang Ziyi), I was debating in my mind what a geisha really is. Is she an artist or a whore?

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,
Japan’s new master. Nobu was hoping that with her entrancing beauty he could get some business contracts from the Americans and get rich again. Nobu, penniless, begged her but she knew she owe him a lot and had to pay him back.

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.


A
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.

7 comments:

taoharu said...

Wow!! Nice commentary. Very deep. I like the way you compared the geisha to our movie stars... I really enjoy your blogs.

Without Borders said...

thanks a lot, sir. you made my day. i hope you keep on visiting and giving your feedbacks. and please spread the word. ha ha

cryxycryx said...

hey...this looks like a nice movie based on you review. :)

Without Borders said...

its still being shown as i type.

aeonflux said...

thanks for the review without borders! i can see you have compassion and are probably a hopeless romantic like so many of us ... am looking forward to seeing it though it sounds like a sad ending. my take is a geisha is a geisha, that is an artist of the floating world full stop. she can love and that love, like others, can be betrayed as nobu did betray that love ... alas, but a geisha is worthy and can love ... so the only discomfort i felt was with the word whore ... its derogatory for the oldest profession in the world of prostitutes or sex workers; its like calling all politicians dirty, which is not the case ... its just that in their trade politicos necessarily have to deal with all the muck but not all (though some may argue most) of them are dirty, so with geishas, all of them have to deal with ... but not all of them are whores ... thanks again for a great review

Without Borders said...

to aeonflux: i used the word "whore" indeed to disturb us all. but you should have noticed that in my review i stressed out the influence of powerful mean in making geisha's into what they are not. really appreciate your comments. feel free to come back and share your thoughts.

Without Borders said...

aenflux: by the way, prostitution is not the oldest profession according to charles van doren. it's protective services. thanks again for dropping by.