Amazon Memoirs of a Geisha cover

Book Review: Memoirs of a Geisha

“As a historian, I have always regarded memoirs as source material. A memoir provides a record not so much of the memoirist as of the memoirist’s world. It must differ from biography in that a memoirist can never achieve the perspective that a biographer possesses as a matter of course. Autobiography, if there really is such a thing, is like asking a rabbit to tell us what he looks like hopping through the grasses of the field. How would he know? If we want to hear about the field, on the other hand, no one is in a better circumstance to tell us – so long as we keep in mind that we are missing all those things the rabbit was in no position to observe.

“I say this with the certainty of an academician who has based a career on such distinctions. And yet I must confess that the memoirs of my dear friend Nitta Sayuri have impelled me to rethink my views.” – Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha

I first saw the film Memoirs of a Geisha nine or so years ago. At the time, I didn’t know what a geisha or even a memoir was. But it was one of the catalysts of my enduring interest in Japan.

It made quite an impression on me. Such an impression, that I never watched it again. (Admittedly, this won’t be very useful as a careful comparison of the book to the film. I have other insights.)

This is not uncommon. I don’t re-watch movies. Partly because there are so many that still remain unseen. Partly because a movie, like any other activity in life, must be experienced, enjoyed, and left behind without looking back in order to make room for the next experience. Partly because with rare exception, even the best movies will not improve with repeated viewing. They might still be good, but they won’t measure up to that first time, that raw first impression.

Rewatching old movies can be a vain exercise in nostalgia; an attempt to ground oneself in familiarity. Only the most complex, nuanced, and timeless tales will continue to give a novel experience each time you view it, as though it were happening again for the first time.

On the other hand, to watch a movie again, like revisiting a memory in light of more recent memory, will give you a new perspective on an old experience.

It’s like that quote from 12 Monkeys: “The movie never changes. It can’t change; but every time you see it, it seems different because you’re different. You see different things.”

And here is the seat of my fear. I worry that on second viewing I will see though it. I fear that Memoirs of a Geisha is not a good film. It might just be a melodramatic exoticization of Japan and a bygone institution.

If I had to compile a list of my favorite movies, many of them would be ones I watched when I was much younger, but left a lasting impression. I suspect that if I were to view them again or for the first time I would not consider them to be great movies. Nonetheless, they are among my favorites.

I didn’t read the book for the same reason. I was afraid it would be worse than the movie; or worse, better than the movie. Either way it would taint my fond memory.

(I still worry my biased affection toward the film may have influenced a bias toward the book, since I wanted to love it.)

“The heart dies a slow death, shedding each hope like leaves until one day there are none. No hopes. Nothing remains.”

So what changed? How did I get around to reading it? Well, time happened.

My memory faded to impressions of Chiyo being taken from her home in the rain, to the montage of her makeup transformation into a geisha, Chiyo scurrying bleary-eyed through the myriad torii gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine, those striking eyes, that traumatizing sex scene with the American officer (“are we going to do this or not?”), lush cinematography, and that unforgettable score by John Williams and Yo-Yo Ma.

I visited Kyoto. And more time happened. And I noticed the book on my friend’s bookshelf. And Japan happened again. And I figured it was time to pick it up.

A last nagging concern has to do with it’s authenticity. The movie was directed by an American, and half of the cast isn’t even Japanese. Likewise, Arthur Golden isn’t Japanese, what could he possibly have to say about geisha in the 1930s and 40s? But I refer to the above quote on the rabbit in the field. Sometimes an outsider’s perspective is just as valuable as an insider’s. Non-Americans have contributed great pieces of Americana (Lolita, American Gods), precisely because of their non-American perspective.

As to the authenticity of Memoirs as Japanese, or its representation of women, or its historical accuracy, I am in not much of a position to critique as I am like the book’s author, not Japanese, not a woman, and not living in the 1920s-50s.

But beyond being about Japan, women struggling to get by in a patriarchal society, or the Great Depression and World War II, Memoirs is really about power, pain, sorrow, hope, despair, and change.

It’s a mediation on beauty. Beauty as a disguise for the ugly, beauty as sorrow, and even sorrow as beauty.

“I was hardly worthy of these surroundings. And then I became aware of all the magnificent silk wrapped about my body, and had the feeling I might drown in beauty. At that moment, beauty itself struck me as a kind of painful melancholy.”

Fittingly, Roger Ebert criticized the movie: “…this is not a movie about actual geishas, but depends on the romanticism of female subjection. The heroines here look so very beautiful and their world is so visually enchanting as they live trapped in sexual slavery.”

But the book plays with this tension of romanticizing and deromanticizing beauty itself. By showing you behind the curtain of the geisha’s daily life and rituals in great detail, it paradoxically simultaneously removes and reaffirms the mystique. It demystifies and deconstructs it, unglamorously. But the disillusionment is itself romanticized. And Chiyo/Sayuri romanticizes her own pain, because pain is romantic.

She hates Gion and plans only escape. But she has nowhere to go. The home she once knew and longs for no longer exists. So she places all her passions, desires, and hopes on one object: the Chairman. Her resolve to be a successful geisha is only incidental as a means to achieving her object of desire.

The scene on the bridge where Chiyo first meets the Chairman was a perfect memory jog. It’s so refreshing and touching to see someone show her genuine kindness.

But then it gets annoying. As the books spells out her infatuation for the Chairman so explicitly and repeatedly, it threatens to diverge into a petty romance novel. It seemed to suggest this powerful male figure would be the answer to all her problems. But then I started to realize what the Chairman actually represents.

In good prose, unlike film, subtext can be spelled out explicitly. The reason prose can get away with this is that it can handle sub-subtext while film cannot. Both can have depth, but while the depth of a film rests in what is unsaid, the depth of a novel rests in what is unsaid about the said. The depth of a novel can be more complex.

S0 the film, as far as I can remember (because I do remember it being a shock to me at the end when she professes her love with the Chairman, but perhaps my younger self just missed all the cues), derives its nuance by leaving Chiyo/Sayuri’s true desire unstated, while the book can state it outright because the nuance is that he is no more than an arbitrary object of desire.

The big question of the book is what do you do if/when you actually obtain your object of desire? (What do you do when your hopes and dreams die? How do you move on? How do you find new hopes?)

I think this question remains somewhat unresolved.

“I can see you have a great deal of water in your personality. Water never waits. It changes shape and flows around things, and finds the secret paths no one else has thought about — the tiny hole through the roof or the bottom of the box. There’s no doubt it’s the most versatile of the five elements. It can wash away earth; it can put out fire; it can wear a piece of metal down and sweep it away. Even wood, which is its natural complement, can’t survive without being nurtured by water.”

That’s some Tao Te Ching shit right there. And it illustrates Sayuri’s ability to adapt to her situation.

The book has some fantastic imagery. It’s easy to imagine Chiyo’s similes written in Japanese as haiku.

As I experienced them out of order, I’ll sum it up this way: Memoirs of a Geisha captures the spirit of the film, however well the details happen to match up.

Perhaps one day in the future, when the memory of the book has also faded, I will revisit the movie, or even the book.

Meeting a geisha (or reenactor) in Gion

Meeting a geisha (or reenactor) in Gion

“As a young girl I believed my life would never have been a struggle if Mr. Tanaka hadn’t torn me away from my tipsy house. But now I know that our world is no more permanent than a wave rising on the ocean. Whatever our struggles and triumphs, however we may suffer them, all too soon they bleed into a wash, just like watery ink on paper.”

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