Prayer Focus
Movie Review

Memoirs of a Geisha

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature subject matter and some sexual content

Reviewed by: Kenneth R. Morefield
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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Adults
Genre:
Biography Historical Romance Drama
Genre:
Length:
2 hr. 25 min.
Year of Release:
2005
USA Release:
December 9, 2005 (NY/LA/SF)
December 16, 2005 (limited)
December 23, 2005 (wide)
Featuring: Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe, Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh, Yoki Kudo
Director: Rob Marshall
Producer: Patricia Whitcher, Steven Spielberg, Bobby Cohen
Distributor: DreamWorks SKG, Sony Pictures Releasing
Copyright, DreamWorks SKG, Sony Pictures Releasing
Copyright, DreamWorks SKG, Sony Pictures Releasing
Copyright, DreamWorks SKG, Sony Pictures Releasing
Copyright, DreamWorks SKG, Sony Pictures Releasing
Copyright, DreamWorks SKG, Sony Pictures Releasing
Copyright, DreamWorks SKG, Sony Pictures Releasing
Relevant Issues
Copyright, DreamWorks SKG, Sony Pictures Releasing

“A motion picture based on the novel by Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha

Plot: An orphan, Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) rises from childhood poverty to become the most famous and sought after geisha in her district but cannot be with the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), the man she really loves. Rated PG-13 for sexual themes and some violence, including some directed towards children.

Copyright, DreamWorks SKG, Sony Pictures Releasing

“Memoirs of a Geisha” is a lushly shot, skillfully acted, and competently directed film. The soundtrack, while overbearing at times, utilizes the skills of Itzhak Perlman on the violin and Yo-Yo Ma on the cello. It will no doubt garner praise for its technical artistry and sympathetic portrayal of gender oppression. My own response was more reserved.

I guess the key moment in “Memoirs of a Geisha”, from a Christian perspective, comes when the orphan Sayuri receives a kindness and a monetary gift from a then stranger on a bridge. To this point in her life, Sayuri has been trying to either escape the house in which she has been sold or merely survive as a slave. She takes the money she has received, more than she has ever had in her life, to the temple and sacrifices it as an offering to accompany her prayer. She wants to be a Geisha so that she can possibly see this man again and be a part of his world.

We are not reminded of this prayer until the very end of the film, two hours (and it is a long two hours) later, when we are told—and we must be told, because we don’t necessarily see it—that everything in her entire life has been an answer to this prayer and that everything she has done, every step she has been taken, has been to bring her closer to this man. Oh, we understand well enough that she longs for a life of her own. We understand, too, that having been born into a life with no education, money, or prospects, the only way of having anything is to accept one in which nothing is really hers. The way to hurt a man who has nothing, Stephen R. Donaldson once wrote, is to give him something broken. Apparently that tactic works with women as well, so yes, we feel the generic sympathy for Sayuri (and those like her) who are themselves sacrifices to the unattainable and often unarticulated dreams of others.

If I could pause for a moment, though, not to fully deconstruct the film’s messages—choice is better than no choice? love is better than prostitution?—but only to point out how very, very ambivalently they are embraced by the film itself, I might be able to account for the curious lack of emotional power with which the film passes over you. “Memoirs of a Geisha” is one quickly moving, impersonal scene after another: our sisters are sold into slavery scarcely before the credits are over, Sayuri moves from attendant servant to debutante geisha in a few training sequences (was I the only one who kept hearing “Team America”’s “Montage” song in my mind?), World War II is covered with a quick shot of some flying planes and a symbolic shot of red silk floating in a river, Sayuri regains her status before we even realize she has lost it.

In other words, things just sort of happen in “Memoirs”. Some of them are interesting, some touching, but like Sayuri’s dance, they are more surface than substance. In the rush to cover so much material, director Rob Marshall rarely gives us enough time to invest in any of the characters; as a result, the things that happen to Sayuri seem more like a series of movie obstacles than true personal tragedies. It is a dramatic movie with an action movie sensibility—beautifully shot, it’s never more than five minutes away from a dramatic plateau or payoff. The tension never rises, though, and the narrator’s voice-overs becomes prosaically expository rather than poetic.

The key to the emotional pull of a romance is the audience’s desire to see the principals together. Choices they make that keep them apart, even misguided ones, extract pathos only if we understand that they should be together. We understand that Sayuri wants the Chairman, but we know nothing of whether he wants (or only desires) her until the end of the film. We aren’t really sure whether she wants him—him you understand, not the illusion of him, nor the memory of a kindness, nor simply the abstract freedom of choice that is symbolized in him, but him—until the credits roll, and we deduce (more than know) that this is a happy ending.

One problem with the material that the film never solves is that the geisha are apparently supposed to be implacable. The masks they wear to make themselves inaccessible and mysterious make it difficult for the audience to connect with Sayuri and believe the depth of her feeling. The novel doesn’t have this problem; it is told in flashback, and the confessional mode of the narrator allows you to be drawn into her inner, emotional world in a way that the film’s chronological structure and observational point-of-view do not.

Finally… okay… I’ll say it. For all the film’s insistence that geisha are not courtesans nor prostitutes, for all the underlining that Sayuri’s prayers and choices are the product of the absence of choice, the film ultimately celebrates the institution of geishahood for providing an escape from poverty and never seriously gives much thought to the price that it extracts. When Sayuri’s virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder, we are invited to linger over her triumph in extracting the highest price in history while the cost of the earnings is only hinted at as she lies down to a discreet fadeout. Love, we are told, has led Sayuri to pray to be able to give herself to the highest bidder. Equal love has led the Chairman to remove himself from that bidding. And the greatest love answers her prayer, not seeing that it isn’t really the true prayer of a soul that knows herself and has a name for the unfamiliar longings that have been born inside her but rather the confused and desperate prayer of a child who has been given kindness as a pusher might give drugs to a junkie and who finds herself willing to sell everything to have another sample.

My Grade: C+

Violence: Mild / Profanity: Minor / Sex/Nudity: Mild


Viewer CommentsSend your comments
Positive—Having read the book and now seen the movie on screen, I am very impressed by the production values of this film and the casting (despite the three main Japanese characters being played by Chinese actresses). Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li give engaging performances that fully embody the characters in Arthur Golden’s wonderful novel, giving us a glimpse into the mysterious world of the geisha.

The cinematography is beautiful and the actors are very appealing. Director Rob Marshall did a fantastic job of making the movie look like a lavish fairy-tale in this Cinderella-esque story of a young girl sold into slavery to an “okiya” (geisha house) and her overcoming obstacles of poverty, abuse, and dispair to become the most celebrated geisha of her time.

Ultimately, the story is one of love and sacrifice, which resonates with me as a Christian (and a hopeless romantic!) Though the movie is rated PG-13 (the book is definitely an R, in my opinion), some Christians may feel there are too many suggested sexual situations and one assault scene that might be disturbing (though no full or partial nudity is shown, it is strongly implied).

The heroine, Sayuri, is a generally good character, though she is not a Christian, because she comes from a traditionally Japanese background. She works hard; is, for the most part, obedient to her elders/mentor; and was even sympathetic to her tormenting rival at the end. Her driving force is to be part of the world of the man she has fallen for, which leads her to make a rash and morally-questionable decision at the end that is shocking, but is integral to the bittersweet nature of the final outcome.

Overall, I would recommend this movie for its lavish beauty, memorable characters (especially the dynamic between the three geishas: Sayuri, Mameha and Hatsumomo) and pining romance. For those who have read the book (and loved it), I would just caution you not to raise your expectations on how well the nuances are captured in the movie. For me, it is enough to have a beautifully-made film that for the most part kept to the original theme of the book to do it justice.
My Ratings: Better than Average / 5
—Estrella F. Sung, age 34
Positive—This movie is definitely for a mature audience. The storyline is morally questionable—definitely not suitable for kids. I would recommend this movie to women who aren’t easily offended by sexual content, but if you are highly conservative then this one is probably not for you. The girl is sold into slavery at the age of 8 and witnesses several sexual encounters throughout her life (although the scenes are not too explicit, they can make you uncomfortable). It is however, a very interesting view of Japanese life and the relationships that develop between women. I found it unsettling how much the Japanese culture changed once the American soldiers came—boy, what a contrast!

If you are a creative or artistic person, you’ll definitely enjoy the shear beauty of this film. The sets, lighting, costuming, and camera work are all spectacular and capture the exquisite world of the geisha in a very vivid way that makes this film a joy to watch, even if you don’t appreciate the story. I have not read the book, so I don’t know how closely the movie follows it, but from an entertainment standpoint I feel this movie is worth seeing.
My Ratings: Average / 3½
—Jill, age 40
Positive—A really beautiful, fantastic movie!! Slower paced than Kung Fu fare like “Crouching Tiger” or “Hero” but it has the same ethereal, mysterious, beautiful qualities that made the others hits. I don’t remember any vile language. Geishas are not common prostitutes, so there aren’t rampant sex scenes or anything you might be concerned about. There are exactly four sexual instances. A child finds a couple having sex in the dark. You can’t see much, and it’s over fast when they realize the child is present. One is just implied off-screen, and kids probably won’t figure out what just happened if they don’t understand the plot. The third is a very disturbing attempted rape. The man pulls off the heroine’s robe and forces her to the floor. They don’t end up doing anything, but she’s crying and struggling, and it’s very disturbing for viewers. I cringed a lot during that scene. Finally, there is a very rushed sex scene near the end. The heroine doesn’t want to do it; she’s using her body to manipulate other people. This is a bad message, but it doesn’t work out for her. Finally, there are a few scenes in a hot spring, but the characters just talk and no private parts are shown. …I think that about covers all the potential disturbing topics.

All in all, and excellent movie for teens and adults, and mature children, as long as you note the warnings.
My Ratings: Average / 5
—Dana, age 20
Positive—I enjoyed the movie quite a bit. Another guy who was with me thought it was a little slow, but the girls with me liked it. Some people have commented on certain scenes in the movie, but I did not feel there was much of anything graphic. Geishas are NOT prostitutes, but rather high class escorts who entertain wealthy/powerful men through activities such as dancing and intelligent conversation at tea houses, etc. I’m a big fan of the actors in this film, and I wasn’t disappointed!
My Ratings: Average / 4
—Stephen, age 25
Negative—“Memoirs of a Geisha” gives the viewer the chance to walk through the narrow streets of a Kyotoesque town with its quaint homes crafted from the beauty of natural wood. But for all the beauty that can be seen in those man-made structures and the islands landscape themselves, the photography was only mediocre to poor. The folks at Fuji Film must have been broken-hearted to see their art executed so crudely. And reality would have been better served if the directors had insisted that the non-Japanese actors study Japanese characteristics more closely. Kimono clad women have a graceful way of running that was noticibly betrayed. Even the shape of the kimonos themselves were not as flawless as could be seen among the old high class geishas.

Westernesque kissing itself was not a form of affection known to the Japanese and so those scenes betrayed the authenticity of any attempt by the producers to convey true culture to viewers. Such contact of the lips and tongue was considered disgusting by the majority of Japanese as late as the mid 20th century. Conveying both culture and a story takes good audio effects. But the foreign accents of many of the actors were so severe that it was very hard to follow the plot for anyone not familiar with Asian languages. Perfect English dubbed in would have been preferred, along with a smattering of pure Japanese placed in greetings and other short encounters.

Finally Miss Ziyi Zhang did a great job considering her nationality and the paucity of cultural knowledge of her American directors. She also conveyed how the universal value of virtue needs to prevail in any culture. Just wish I could be a fly on the wall in a Japanese theatre to see the reactions on the faces of native Japanese as they viewed this attempt by Americans, sans good native advisers, to recreate an important historic institution.
My Ratings: Average / 3
—Lawrence, age 55
Positive—I was intrigued by the movie, but I think it was because I had lived in Japan. The movie is only for adults and should be R-rated. It certainly deals with adult-only material. My wife thought it was a bit too slow and was less impressed.
My Ratings: Offensive / 4
—Joe, age 57
Positive—This movie did indeed contain thematic elements such as sexual encounters, the auctioning of Sayuri’s virginity, and the competition between rival geishas, that make it worth considering closely before viewing. I thought that these were negative aspects of “Memoirs of a Geisha”. These aspects, however, were downplayed, and not glorified or gratuitously portrayed. My positive rating of this movie comes from the absolutely phenominal acting, filmmaking, and production quality that it contained. The scenery, acting, and wonderful portayal of a great and mysterious culture were breathtaking. Though some may be against it, I did not personally think that having Chinese actors play the three main parts was detracting from the film. Though I have always particularly enjoyed Ziyi Zhang’s (Sayuri) talent, veryone who contributed to Memoirs of a Geisha—these three included—did a wonderful job that left a lasting impression.

Extra plusses to this movie: an amazing soundtrack, featuring YoYo Ma and Itzhak Rabin (Ma’s cello, as I’ve seen in extras, symbolizes Sayuri, while Rabin’s violin symbolizes the Chairman). Also, the introduction of Suzuka Ohgo, who plays young Chiyo—the girl gave a wonderful performance, and her talent and just plain cuteness will hopefully ensure we’ll see more of her.
My Ratings: Average / 5
—Carina, age 20
Comments from young people
Neutral—…I did not read the book, but thought the movie would be cool and educational to see. I enjoyed the quality of the movie very much and how real it seemed, but there were two scenes that were highly inappropriate… (I just closed my eyes!), and a couple other things that could have been left out. I do recommend the film to older teens and adults, but it would be better on DVD. The culture was relflected in the movie, which I loved, although I was disappointed at the scenes. But, that is their culture. The movie was sad, but had a good ending. The movie did not reflect morals of God’s Word. …It is definitely not for younger kids or teens. …
My Ratings: Average / 5
—Lauren, age 15
Negative—I thought this movie looked cool on the previews, but don’t be deceived. It’s two and a half hours long, and nothing very exciting ever happens. What is a geisha? I’m still not sure. Maybe someone who entertains and gets paid to hang out with wealthy businessmen. One of the big things for a geisha is to sell her virginity. The protagonist accused another geisha of being nothing but a common prostitute. I thought, “And you’re not because…?” It had several sex scenes, though nothing super graphic. Don’t waste your money on this movie.
My Ratings: Offensive / 2
—Brittney, age 15
Neutral—I love the book, and have been anticipating this for a while, but when I finally saw it, I came out disappointed. The film’s acting is decent, and the visuals are beautiful, however, despite the visuals the film just seemed dull to me. …a somewhat anti-American message during the final third of the film; there are 2 scenes were sex and rape are suggested—the 1st scene is only seen from outside a window, and there’s no nudity, the 2nd time they’re interrupted before anything too explict is shown. Profanity is minimal, besides one use of “bastard.” In terms of drugs and alcohol content, characters smoke and drink throughout, although it is never glorified. Only see the film if you’re a fan of the book, otherwise, wait till DVD.
My Ratings: Better than Average / 3
—Jonathan, age 10
Positive—Coming from a background in theatre, watching this movie brought about many mixed emotions. For about the first 3/4 of the movie, I was wondering when it would end and what was going on; however, in the homestretch, the symbolism and true cinematic quality kicked in to elegantly tie it in together. As far as the sexual content, I didn’t think it was overpowering (there weren’t a whole lot, considering the stereotypical expectation of today’s movies AND the popular definition of a Geisha (which is NOT a prostitute) …thought that the director and producers did a fantastic job of subliminally diverting the audience’s focal point from the sexual motiff (e.g., I thought the sex scenes were actually downplayed from what was to be expected (thank God) by only discreetly alluding to the fact that, yes, it was going on, but your mind was quickly whisked away to other things.). Overall, wonderful depiction and portrayal of the true struggles of a troubled childhood in this particular era and through the War, and demonstration of how faith, determination and perseverence can carry you through the bleakest of situations.
My Ratings: Better than Average / 4
—Austin P., age 16
Positive—I was extremely pleased to see this book made into a movie, although I strongly advise parents of young teens to know that this film is only for mature viewers. In terms of complying with Christian morals, the custom of basically “owning” a woman and auctioning them off to men is completely flawed, but it IS a part of the history of Japan, and the movie was consistent in all aspects of historical accuracy and portraying the story in the best way possible. To experience the movie in its fullness, you must understand the traditions and culture of Japan, and actually understand who Geishas are before and after seeing an entire movie based upon them. If you walked into the theatre expecting something action-packed with constant images and plots twists being blown through your mind like the previews, then this brilliant picture is really not for you.

The one thing that irked me about the movie (and many may consider this to be splitting hairs) is that the actors were Chinese rather than Japanese. Narrow-minded individuals may argue that “it doesn’t matter,” but for the movie to seem as if it took place in a certain area and culture, it would have been wise to have Japanese actors. The musical features and use of scenery and visuals is stunning, and I highly recommend this film for teens to adults.
My Ratings: Average / 5
—Katie, age 14
Movie Critics
…a beautifully produced movie that is at times heartbreaking, romantic and very moving, but it deals with difficult subject matter requiring much caution…
—Movieguide
…A gorgeous mix of Hollywood exoticism and near-perfect production value… a magnificent painterly quality…
—The Dallas Morning News, Chris Vognar
…lacks power to seduce… it is also unengaging, inauthentic and frequently ear-splitting…
—Boston Herald, James Verniere
…an overripe romance that manages the not-so-cute trick of being both glitzy and ponderous while straining for delicacy and grandeur… By the end, you understand less of the geisha life than you’d been led to expect you would…
—Newsday, Gene Seymour
…supplies what is required, elegantly and with skill. …one of the best-looking movies in some time…
—Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert