Friday, January 18, 2008


Ongoing Geisha Saga Redux

A while back I posted that Mineko Iwasaki's memoir, Geisha, A Life, was due to be turned into a TV special in Japan. For a refresher on the scandal and lawsuit surrounding Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, see here. See also this archived article which questions Iwasaki's motives.

Now the TV special has come and gone and I've had a chance to see it. The title roughly translates to "Battle of the Flowers," which I guess is euphemism for a major catfight.

A few observations in no order of importance.

1. Love

1. In the memoir, Iwasaki falls in love with an actor. The romance exists in the "floating world" but not in reality, a fact that Iwasaki eventually comes to resent. In a fit of pique--remember, this is a girl who has been essentially closeted in the beautiful floating world her entire life--she attacks her lover's wardrobe, before breaking up with him, and leaving the floating world shortly thereafter. Pretty exciting stuff.

In the TV special, Iwasaki falls in love with an actor. They break up in one of the most spectacularly corny and repressed scenes ever. Iwasaki and Toshio simply bow to each other, and then it's over. Yawn.

In the novel, Sayuri has a long-standing repressed and one-sided fascination with the chairman, which ends with a confession before she is whisked away to New York. Not, mind you, that this relationship is based on much more than the fact that he once gave her a handkerchief when she needed it.


In the TV special, Mineko performs a special "dance sequence" which involves rolling around on the floor while crying. Seriously. Look at the Youtube clip again. See how she's sitting on the floor in tears? That's the "dance" sequence.

In the memoir, Mineko is an expert dancer, who claims that her art "deepened" once she fell in love--and was eventually heartbroken. This, she claims, was necessary to become a truly profound artist.

In the film, Sayuri performs a backbend worthy of Cirque-de-Soleil while wearing a pair of massive platform shoes. Whatever. It doesn't take a genius to figure out this wasn't exactly . . . authentic.

3. Geisha

In the TV special, Mineko becomes a geisha once she loses the face-paint and turns her collar.

In the memoir, Mineko becomes a geisha once she loses the face-paint and turns her collar.

In the movie, Sayuri auctions off her virginity, stumbles home in a daze and is told: "Now you are a geisha." Puke. Yeah, the movie went to great lengths to dissuade anyone of the idea that geisha aren't prostitutes.

4. Catfights

In the TV special, Mineko is tormented by an older geisha who turns out to be her biological sister before the latter is thrown out of the house.

In the memoir, Mineko's biological sisters are also "sold" into geishahood. There are no catfights.

In the movie, Mineko is tormented by the beautiful Hatsumomo, played by Gong Li, before she disappears.

For readers and writers the comparisons are mildly interesting. Note how the live action stories faced similar narrative problems; how to make dance remotely interesting and how to spice up the drama of the early part of the novel, pre-romance. How to start or end a romance in this beautiful, tense environment. We like our love stories to end in disaster or marriage; in the floating world, marriage isn't exactly depicted as a success (in the TV special one geisha kills herself, another tries getting married and then gives it up).

Other random thoughts.

In the memoir, the tea-house which Iwasaki enters is absolutely convinced that she will one day be a great geisha, and this prediction, made when Iwasaki is only 5, turns out to be correct. I find this kind of cultural impulse fascinating and eerie; do we really know who among us will succeed when are 5? Does success partly come because of expectation? It would have been an interesting way to frame the story.

I found that the best thing by far were the performances, not only of Inoue Mao as the geiko Mineko, but also the supporting roles. Kyoto, fortunately, actually looked like Kyoto and one got a little bit of a sense of what Showa Japan looked like as it struggled to preserve elements of Meiji and Taisho high culture. When Mineko says to her would-be-suitor lover, "This is where we play at love," you definitely see how the floating world fosters a sense of constant romance and a highly aesthetic environment that is separate from the mundane. Love and art and beauty all exist in this context--and not in any other. Once upon a time, people actually lived this way, till the modern world challenged us to integrate everything.

For me, at this point, Golden's novel wins hands down, along with Liza Dalby's seminal work and Iwasaki's memoir. Sometimes, a book is just a better medium.

Exciting comments over at Japundit.

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