In Memoirs of a Geisha, due to poverty, Chiyo and her sister are sold by their fisherman parents to become Geishas in the big city. Unfortunately, the sisters are split because Chiyo is deemed more attractive and is taken in by a more upmarket Geisha house. Here she meets Pumpkin, a young girl of similar age, which makes the loss of her sister and the arduous training she has to undergo to become a Geisha more bearable. Unfortunately, because of her beauty, Chiyo makes an enemy out of Hatsumomo, the Geisha house’s most famous Geisha, and it seems that a successful career as a Geisha has been thwarted. Then Mameha, a rival Geisha, becomes involved, and takes Chiyo under her wing. Will Chiyo manage to become a successful Geisha? Even if she does, is this really her fate?
The Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi (often referred to as Ziyi Zhang – Zhang is her surname, but it comes first in Chinese) who plays Chiyo is beautiful and is without doubt an excellent actress. She has acted in films directed by Zhang Yimou, and she has improved in leaps and bounds during her career. As Chiyo, she does a very good job, although without heavy make-up, she doesn’t look in the slightest bit Japanese. And unfortunately, the film is in English and her English is minimal, which doesn’t help her in the role.
Michelle Yeoh, who is Malaysian Chinese, plays Mameha. In her make-up, she did look the part, but it is hard accept her as a Geisha. For an Asian actress, she is less feminine than her counterparts and she isn’t feminine enough for a Geisha. This may be because viewers are used to seeing her in action films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Tomorrow Never Dies. She is a great actress, but here, she seems miscast.
Gong Li, ex-partner of Chinese director Zhang Yimou and star of many of his films, is a beautiful actress. She has a grace rarely seen in actresses of any nationality and is perfect in the role of the jealous Geisha Hatsumomo, apart from the fact that she is Chinese and not Japanese.
Ken Watanabe, who thank goodness is Japanese, plays The Chairman. For the role that he plays, he does a great job; although perhaps his role should have been greater. Having said that, the role of the Chairman in the book is also very much in the background.
The main criticism about this film is the use of three actresses of Chinese nationality when the film is clearly about Japanese Geishas. There are arguments about why this happened. The two main ones seem to be that it is the actress and not her nationality that is important and that there were no Japanese actresses with adequate enough English that auditioned for the part. With regard to the first argument, nationality should be less important than the actress’ skills and this viewer would have ignored it if just one of the main actresses was Chinese. However, when taking into consideration the ignorance of the Western world who already think the Chinese and the Japanese are of the same culture, speak the same language, look alike etc, the use of three actresses of Chinese nationality will just perpetuate this.
With regard to the second argument, that there were no Japanese actresses with adequate enough English, this is very hard to believe. Zhang Ziyi’s English is pretty bad. She could barely speak the language before she took on the role, so why couldn’t they find a Japanese actress and train her to speak English?
There are a great number of excellent Chinese actresses and it is great that they are becoming more famous. However, the film should have been directed and produced by the Japanese themselves rather than leave it to Hollywood producers who clearly don’t understand the sensitivity of Sino-Japanese relations.
Apart from that, the only other negative comment is that the film is dull and it is hard to maintain interest through to the end. Whereas it is possible to spend time reading descriptions in the book and thoroughly enjoy them, when translated over to film, it is just not enough – more action is needed and this just isn’t supplied here. The use of colours, as is often the case in films about the Far East, is stunning – bright yellows and reds against muted pastels. Unfortunately, it is not enough to save this film. If you are particularly interested in Japan and Geishas, then this film is worth seeing. If not, then you may find it dull.