Friday, December 30, 2005

A Geisha Best Left Forgotten

*warning. spoilers.* It was bad enough when Arthur Golden wrote the book. We should've known when every Chinese actress you'd ever heard of was cast to play Japanese geishas. We were ready to boycott when we realized the film would be shot in English rather than in Japanese. And yet, sometimes, to criticize a thing, you have to subject yourself to the pain of exposing yourself to it, even if you already know how bad it's going to be. Memoirs of a Geisha follows the story of a young geisha's rise to fame in early twentieth century Japan. Golden uses the story, supposedly dictated to him by a real-life geisha who wished to remain anonymous, to combine soap opera-type plotlines with an Orientalist guide to geisha culture. In the film version, all the bush-whacking exploration into foreign, exotic culture is excised for a cheap, cardboard romance that contains none of the emotion and all of the icky social statements best left unsaid. First of all, Memoirs of a Geisha glorifies the geisha subculture, capitalizing on the West's obsession with all the "mystery of the Orient" to minimize the repression and sexual slavery of geisha life. The screenplay takes pains to distinguish between geisha and common prostitutes, and yet even in Golden's book, the line is blurred -- geisha are still girl-slaves who must earn their freedom, geisha still sell their virginity to the highest bidder, and they are still expected to provide regular sexual comfort to their patrons (or danna). The film transforms Zhang Ziyi's Sayuri, already a character of questionable strength and vigour, into a willing second-class citizen. Her life goal consists entirely of living to serve her chosen love ("the Chairman"), and it is this desire to become his mistress that is at the core of each of her life decisions. Near the end of the film, Sayuri contents herself with becoming merely the Chairman's mistress, even with this submissive role, she does not quest for equal footing with the Chairman. Is anyone else wondering if Destiny's Child's controversial song Cater 2 You was the soundtrack for this film? This submissiveness is not restricted to Sayuri alone. Each of the female characters in Geisha distract themselves with catfighting, backstabbing, melodramatic romanticizing, and all other stereotypically female behaviour while cajoling to the audience a level of acceptance for their oppression at the hands of the male sex. Neither Mameha nor Hatsumomo's characters, both presented as strong-willed, defiant, and successful geisha, seek equality with their male clients nor do they fight back against their servitude towards them. In Mameha's case, she depends on first her danna, the Baron, and later the Chairman to repeatedly save her, and even when she briefly leaves the geisha life to become a landlady, she is quickly persuaded to return to that life of servitude by Sayuri. Gong Li's Hatsumomo is a truely conniving and psychotic woman, and yet, even though she is the breadwinner of her okiya, neither she nor the okiya's mother are truely strong women. Hatsumomo is not only completely unbalanced, but part of her subplot includes an affair she is having with another man. Here, even though one would assume this romance to be one in which Hatsumomo is reaching out as a sign of claiming her own strength and independence, she is depicted as a sexual slave of a different sort, considering herself second to the whims of her boyfriend, and his only speaking lines include frustration at having to sneak around to see her -- but frustration because it is a blow to his honour, not her's. Of the primary male characters, I'm surprised there haven't been more Asian men to speak out against the film. Much like Joy Luck Club, again, Hollywood seems unable to profile Asian women without incorporating weak or despicable Asian male characters to contrast them with, as if Asian women are not compelling enough to be heroines, in their own right. Of all the Asian men shown in the film (and the book) most are sexual devients and perverts, such as Cary Tagawa's the Baron and the just-plain-icky Dr. Crab (read the book to find out why... his fetish was too much even for the movie), and this feral animalistic sexual predation brings to mind the Yellow Peril hysteria of Asian men at the turn of the last century. Even Ken Watanabe's character, the Chairman, who should have been the romantic love interest is portrayed more like a womanizing pedophile with a Lolita complex, and though Sayuri fawns for him throughout the film, when she finally becomes his mistress at the end, the Chairman is not shown falling in love with Sayuri, but rather taking her under his wing to become yet another in a long line of his sexual conquests. Moreover, we find that the Chairman was, in fact, responsible for Sayuri's training under Mameha, and therefore the story cannot escape an unsettling reference to The Stepford Wives, wherein the Chairman in fact moulded Sayuri into his perfect "concubine". Nobu is the one Asian male in the film who is not depicted as a sexual predator. Instead, he is seen as emasculated and broken. His twisted face makes him literally half a man, and yet he still does not want to love Sayuri, but to own her by becoming her danna. He says, "I do not like things dangled in front of me which I cannot have", a perfect summation of all the mens' feelings towards the geisha women. And yet, again, the geisha are never seen speaking out or dealing with this objectification. Beyond the gender politics, the film should be considered to be the sequel to the Last Samurai, Orientalism and all. Again, we follow the story of not a typical Asian person, but one who has been altered to be more identifable to the colonizing audience, the Western viewer. In the Last Samurai, the last samurai was in fact White-as-can-be Tom Cruise, while in Memoirs, Sayuri has eyes as blue as any Aryan. Moreover, rather than having a film spoken in Japanese and subtitled, the films' producers take pains to cast a non-Japanese cast of women and force all the actors to speak English with a heavy accent. Having spoken personally with Cary Tagawa, I know that that accent is very fake, and the little girl who plays the young Pumpkin also seemed to have forced an accent that ended up making her sound British. While Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li learned all her lines phonetically (I don't lie, I respect that!!), director Rob Marshall most likely told everyone else to speak as if they were imitating Will Shatner. The only purpose for this would be to simulate Asian authenticity in a White viewers' mind by playing to what a White audience members' stereotype of an Asian narrative voice would sound like rather than pursuing actual cultural authenticity (i.e., if we are to pretend the veil of film has created a "magical translator" for Japanese such that Western audiences can understand the characters' conversation, we would logically expect those words to emerge as flawless English because the characters are speaking to one another in flawless Japanese. Instead, Marshall prefers the illusion of Otherness by forcing his actors to adopt "Chinglish"-type accents. To borrow a phrase from the Angry Asian Man, that's racist! Speaking of which, if that's the case, how do the White guys in the end of the film able to understand Sayuri?) Which of course, brings me to my biggest gripe over the film: the exoticism. With Golden's book, few people had read his Orientalist trash and so were not caught up in the fervour over all things Asian that it represented. However, now that the film has made it to the silver screen, we are seeing a resurgence of Yellow mania -- Golden's book is selling out left and right as more non-Asians are rediscovering -- and bastardizing: the guy who sold me my tickets had the nerve to pronounce the word "gee-shah" while earlier in the day, I watched a family shop in a vintage store, pull out the ugliest pseudo-kimono I have ever seen, call it "a Japanese dress", and loudly declare that they were going to hang it on the wall as an "art piece" -- the self-proclaimed "mystery of the Orient", nicely digested for the White man into neat, Christmas-y packages by White men. I guess the Silk Trade is up and running again. That's not to say that I absolutely hated this film; after all, it had one redeeming quality: I got to watch Gong Li beat the ever-loving crap outta Zhang Ziyi. Anyone who follows Gong Li's career will also get a kick outta those scenes -- far be it from me to begrudge one of the most beautiful and talented actresses ever to come out of Asia the opportunity to lay the smack down against the woman groomed to be both her romantic and professional successor. That'll teach Zhang Ziyi's untalented ass. But seriously, this film was not only a nightmare as far as identity politics, but was also a trainwreck of a bad movie. Rob Marshall just needed to quit while he was ahead. If you want to see a good historical drama about Asia ... well, you'd better not hold your breath. I'm waiting right along with you to see it. If you like this post, see also: Geishas Gone Wild from the UCLA Asia Insitute


Anonymous Jo said...

Great post. I have only read the book, but it has the same icky themes in it.

And for the final time...Chinese people do not look like Japanese people! Even gaijin-me could see how totally ungeisha the maincharacter looked.

12/30/2005 04:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Mac said...

I can't really speak on the aisan perspective of the movie (since I'm not). But just from a movie fans stand point it was everything I thought it would. A whitewashed movie made for white America. Some of them acutally appluded after it was over. My fiancee on the other (who's Japanese) loved it however. But she has the luxury of knowing the REAL culture and only looks at this as pure entertainment. This wasn't a bad movie per say. Just forgettable and disapointing that such great actors were reduced to reciting cliched dialog and wooden chracterizations.

12/31/2005 12:42:00 AM  
Blogger Jenn said...

@mac This wasn't a bad movie per say.

I guess I have to disagree with that statement. Beyond everything else, I just thought it was a bad movie. No character development, stilted melodramatic dialogue, bad editing (i.e. choppy story), overly visual with little substance behind it, terrible acting by all except Gong Li and possibly Michelle Yeoh. I just thought the movie sucked.

12/31/2005 11:52:00 AM  
Blogger yellowbaby said...

I liked what Ebert had to say about the the film:

"I know, a geisha is not technically a prostitute. Here is a useful rule: Anyone who is 'not technically a prostitute' is a prostitute...if this movie had been set in the West, it would be perceived as about children sold into prostitution, and that is not nearly as wonderful as 'being raised as a geisha'...I felt some of the same feelings during 'Pretty Baby,' the 1978 film in which Brooke Shields, playing a girl of 12, has her virginity auctioned away in New Orleans. The difference is that 'Pretty Baby' doesn't evoke nostalgia, or regret the passing of the world it depicts."

1/01/2006 01:47:00 PM  
Blogger Lee Herrick said...

I love your post, Jenn. I slammed it as well---and I am glad that people from Roger Ebert to bloggers everywhere have added to the criticism. Bravo.

1/01/2006 06:12:00 PM  
Blogger TP said...

Really interesting post Jenn. I've read the book, and was appauled by the story - though I did enjoy it. I guess due to it's soap opera style, maybe it's due to the horror of it?

Since reading it I sought out more accurate historical texts about geisha and agree with you that it is slavery and prostitution, and that glamourisation of this as artistic achievement is very misleading.

I am interested to see the film though, and will probably still go, but will go with your thoughts in mind.

Love the blog.

1/04/2006 05:26:00 AM  
Blogger silverfish said...

Someone really needs to speak out on the behalf of East Asian men. I've been friends with many over the years and they're all perfectly normal human beings. The way they get depicted in the western media is quite unfair.

1/05/2006 04:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok. Here comes the anti-post tirade. I liked the film. The settings and photography were stunning! And yes: it was not the book but then books are not films and it would be foolish to expect them to be.

As for the feminist nonsense of this post: given the time and place, yes, the relationships between men and women are depicted as they were. That was then, before Gloria Steinhem et al...More to the point: the film made it clear for those who noticed that all
was money-driven, from what guys with money could buy, to what girls could get on a pecking order...The money nexus was just beneath the veneer of artsy fartsy stuff the geishas depicted, and they knew their rewards and futres depended on pleasing males and rising in the system. In sum: money drives all in that cultrues as it does today ain ours and other cultures.

Sure: Chinese women are not Japanese. I know that. I spent time in the Orient...quci: were the men depicted, Chinese, Korean, or Japanese? Or does it all matter less when Lost in Translation

1/06/2006 12:37:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

@anonymous: I liked the film. The settings and photography were stunning!

Hey, you can like what you want. I'm not asserting that my opinion on the film is the be all and end all. However, I do question your taste in films if you can look past bad, melodramatic, soap-opera style stilted dialogue, lack of character development, and transparent plotlines for the sake of visuals. And to me, I'm personally skeptical, in a film like this, if people like the "settings and photography" because of talented visual production or because of the "exotic" setting of the film. Again, I think part of why people might like the way the film looks is because they associate cherry blossoms and pagodas with the romance of "the Orient" (more on that term later).

nd yes: it was not the book but then books are not films and it would be foolish to expect them to be.

Yep, I agree. And the book sucked too.

As for the feminist nonsense of this post: given the time and place, yes, the relationships between men and women are depicted as they were. That was then, before Gloria Steinhem et al

The film is set in the 1940's, immediately following the second world war. However, the film is being shown in the 21st century, using modern actresses to a modern audience. Any film, historical or otherwise, must be aware of how it will impact modern political communities. Also, it must be aware of its audience -- half the people attending the movie are fulfilling some fetishistic obsession with the East. Any student of media theory will know that no film exists within a political void -- every movie creates an impact on modern society and must be seen not only as film projected onto a screen, but must be considered in conjunction with how it is interpreted by its audience.

Also, you make the seriously grave mistake of confusing American feminism with Japanese feminism. Was this era prior to Gloria Steinam? Yes. Does that have anything to do with post-WWII Japan? No.

And you also mistake the birth of Steinam as the birth of feminism. Feminism had its roots throughout the world before WWII. Women's suffrage (globally) was a movement that achieved the vote for women in many countries in the 1920's. And although there was a massive feminist movement that arose in Japan in the 1970's, prior to this time was a first-wave feminism that was, in at least a small part, a response to repressive geisha culture. While there may or may not have been room to address that in the film, it certainly warrants discussion in any discussion of the film.

..More to the point: the film made it clear for those who noticed that all was money-driven, from what guys with money could buy, to what girls could get on a pecking order...

Did it really? The film was couched as a romance, first of all. And secondly, while some movie-goers may recognize that, did the film make any comment on this? Also, do you wonder why, again, we see Asian women essentially being depicted as money-grubbing prostitutes? Again, when taking the impact of the film into context, this depiction only matches existing stereotypes of Asian men and women as greedy, cold-hearted misers or prostitutes of questionable scruples willing to sell it all for some cash-in-hand.

...the veneer of artsy fartsy stuff the geishas depicted...In sum: money drives all in that cultrues ...

I would say something about how movie-goers are ostensibly going to "learn something" about Asian culture but are really just going to exoticize it while disrespecting any actual culture upon which this film is based, but you just did it for me.

Chinese women are not Japanese.

What's the message for audience members if they are "close enough" such that Hollywood feels they are able to portray one another on camera?

I spent time in the Orient...

I would love to be a bitch about this, but let's just be nice. Just so you know, "The Orient" is not really an acceptable term to be using to describe Asia, at least not when it comes to most politicized Asian Americans. In this conversation, it only indicates to me that you came into this film with a pre-existing fetish for the "exotic East".

were the men depicted, Chinese, Korean, or Japanese? Or does it all matter less when Lost in Translation

The depicted male characters were Japanese -- but note that you don't really care as long as we all have slanty eyes and black hair, it seems to be good enough for you such that you thought all the characters belonged to this umbrella-look of "Asia".

As for the actors: Ken Watanabe and Cary Tagawa are Japanese, as is Yakusho, who portrayed Nobu. However, Dr. Crab was portrayed by Randall Duk Kim who is not Japanese.

Yes, it matters, to me. They should have found an all-Japanese cast, and they should have filmed the move in Japanese with English subtitles. And that just scratches the surface of what's wrong with this film.

1/06/2006 05:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Maria said...

I'll just leave a brief comment. I am surprised by the need to have the film spell out all of the "right" political positions that should arise out of the geisha phenomenon, which although dying a slow death is still pretty alive today.

Why do you assume that the film should be a moral parable, geared towards the least sophisticated members of the audience who cannot see that:

-geisha are being treated as prostitutes,
-they are sold into slavery at a very young age,
-they have a whole life dedicated to nothing but catering to men's every fantasy,
-the "love" this girl has for "the Chairman" is as superficial as can possibly be,

and all of the other points that have been raised in the story. I consider myself able to read between lines, and I would thoroughly *hate* a movie that willingly tried to spell out every thought I "should" believe.

1/08/2006 10:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Maria said...

By the way: I think the photography was astounding, but overall the movie was not good at all. I just think its failings don't come from its lack of political stance, but from the lack of any depth in its characters, the slow pace of the story, and the fact that I would have preferred to spend that time doing something else.

1/08/2006 10:44:00 AM  
Blogger James said...

Maria, I don't think any part of the author's post here wanted Memoirs of a Geisha to spell out accepted morality or politically correct orthodoxy on the geisha phenomena. Further, I'd caution against the commonplace elitism that believes that some members of an audience are 'least sophisticated' than others. Obviously, some people are totally okay with the rampant sexism of the movie, but even if they are not, there's nothing wrong with a person explaining why they personally take issue with it. Everything isn't obvious to everyone; there are people who still think the United States can "win" in Iraq.

Yes, Memoirs of a Geisha was a bad movie. To examine why, let's at least remember that the film treats the geisha as one would a cherry blossom - beautiful to look at, only existing for admiration and praise from those too industrious and powerful and male to really care. This treatment is no surprise - Arthur Golden's source material remains required reading for Orientalists and Asiaphiles the world over, and the post-Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon American movie audience is trained to view Asia (and Asians) as people so different and distinct that whatever social customs they follow on screen, it's not important, because the lush landscapes and pretty kimonos and expressive dance sequences and violent martial arts emerge as the main point.

Movie characters without personality and politics lack depth. No, every movie need not be Fahrenheit 9/11, but the sheer boredom of Memoirs of a Geisha stems from the Western need to regard Asians as human scenery, pretty and inconsequential, while raping various Asian cultures with impunity. So the overall weakness of the film relates to its political content, and should be judged accordingly.

1/08/2006 12:48:00 PM  
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