by Arthur Golden
1 July 2006 book review by Collie Collier

Credits: For Casey, who always encourages me to think.
Also, I so want the beautiful soundtrack! ;)


The fictional story of Sayuri, the most celebrated geisha of her time, and how she came to that position. The story's emphasis is more on the "exotic" Japanese cultural habits and subcultural geisha rituals, rather than on the personality of the girl herself.



Literary thoughts

I found this a fascinating book, but more from an anthropological standpoint rather than a literary one. Literarily I was interested to see it was written by a man, about the Floating World — but curiously, that phrase is never mentioned. I was also fascinated as much by what the book said about my own culture, as it said about this Japan-of-the-past. The story was set in the 1940s, which all things considered was probably wise — the geisha code of silence is such that the author would either have to make up gentlemen for his fictional geisha to know too much about, or run the risk of offending powerful modern-day Japanese families.

For me the book had one serious flaw: the characters are less important than the "exotic" subculture the author describes. For example, the geisha's true romance rang hollow to me — the love of her life was a symbol, not a real person. Also, her villainous geisha nemesis is sharply drawn, but would have been more so if we got a deeper peek into the cause of her motiveless malignity. Why did she hate Sayuri so, considering they shared the same plight as all geisha? We never find out.

It was sad but unsurprising to see the potential viciousness between the women competing for the men. When the only things you have to play are your looks and your reputation, and you live or die on that, the unethical turn their brains to hurting others and reducing the competition, rather than simply being the best they can be. After all, flat-out prostitution and an early death was a woman's alternative to the repressive, arcane system of courtship. I think this must have been the purported motive for the geisha nemesis, since nothing better is ever offered.

I found it interesting that in the end, the protagonist made it mostly due to her eyes attracting the attention of men — this was very much a rich man's world. It wasn't Sayuri's brains or her beauty which saved her initially, because alone she'd never have made it — and her sister didn't at all. Sayuri's "saving grace" was nothing more than her odd, "exotic" eyes. True, the women did all the training, but it was the men in Sayuri's life who had the real power: the Chairman, Nobu-san, and the Baron. The women were always the servants, the hands, the tools of the men — and they were coddled and petted, or used and cast aside, just as easily as any other pet or tool.

As a consequence, I wasn't surprised to read about the women silently conspiring together to drive up the price of the protagonist's virginity, and other situations where the women made no attempt not to fleece the men. When a group is oppressed, it's only natural they figure out how to sneakily manipulate and manage their oppressors to their poor best efforts, in order to survive. It's possible the men were equally enslaved by social conventions, but that's not what the story was about, and so we didn't get to see whether that was the case or not. What was painfully clear was how much higher the stakes were for the women than the men. Not only was penniless starvation and death a constant possibility if the women did not serve their male masters amusingly enough — but we see this fate occur to several of the women (although none of the men) in the story.

As a random aside, I found it sort of bleakly amusing how banal most of the people were. It makes sense in a way, though — when most folks want to relax they don't usually care to discuss philosophy, or intricate financial matters, or elegant poetry. They want to get drunk and silly, play dumb drinking games, and have beautiful women admire them for no good reason.

After the book's compelling first half, the second half is a bit flat and overlong. I found myself having a bit of trouble 'believing' some of Sayuri's actions, as well. Her extreme passivity was a bit hard to swallow, considering her status by that point. Admittedly, the most active things she did in her life were to attempt to escape and to seduce someone she loathed, and they both initially backfired on her. Still, where was her personality?

Further, shouldn't she eventually have tried to find her sister? Admittedly she was an orphan, but shouldn't family have meant more than that to her once she became rich and famous? Couldn't she have perhaps hired her sister as a maid or something? Why was her sister sold as a common whore rather than as a maid elsewhere — did the man who sold her make more money that way, perhaps?

In the end, I found myself very much fascinated by the information about the culture, even as I was utterly uncaptivated by the protagonist. She didn't seem to truly care about anything, choosing instead to simply float along in deliberate helplessness on the current of her life. Everyone seems to have been fascinated by her cleverness and beauty, but I can't help but wonder if what they truly saw was nothing more than an admiring mirror, rather than any real personality.

Quite frankly, Sayuri herself was an uninteresting person — it was the cultural bits which surprised me and caught my interest — and consequently the book did not stand up to a re-read. I can't help but wonder if that's what made the book so popular, in fact — that "foreign exoticism," coupled with the frisson of sexuality. It's like what we really love isn't the story (since there isn't much of one), but rather that we love having the formerly-secret "elitist" knowledge regarding those excitingly "naughty" geishas all spread out for our titillation, like tourists caught accidentally at a nudie show.

As I write this, I'm looking forward to seeing the movie. It should be interesting to see how faithful the movie-makers are to both the original texts, and to Japanese cultural perceptions. They can hardly make Sayuri less interesting, after all, and maybe she'll come off better in the movie.

Cinematic thoughts

Well, now I've seen the movie, and it was gorgeous, as movies always are. It also did one or two things better than the book — it clearly highlights just how personality-less the geisha end up, tamely following directions and instructions in order to become good little decorations. It also showed visual detail much more beautifully. Unfortunately due to its very nature the movie had so much visual beauty that I can't help but wonder what I missed due to not being able to see it all. Also, I bet there were things I missed that would have had significance to watching Japanese.

I found out afterwards much of the movie was shot in the beautiful and nearby Hakone Gardens, which was rather exciting to hear. I'll have to go visit there again, and maybe attend a tea ceremony this time — I've always wanted to do that! Anyone want to come with me? ;)

I was somewhat disappointed, unfortunately, by the kimonos. There'd been so much lovely description of them in the book that I couldn't wait to see them. Unfortunately, most of them seemed to be of rather dull colors. However, it's possible this was a deliberate choice. There was a lot of bright, vivid color use in the movie, especially in the scenes before WWII, and whenever a rich man entered the scene. Colors seemed more washed out in the scenes of poor places. It was a clever means of underlining the critical importance of class in daily life in that Japan.

I think the highlight of the movie was Sayuri's dance — it was simply breath-takingly gorgeous! I was quite impressed with how beautifully choreographed and staged it was, and how well the actress portrayed sensuality and beauty at once. I couldn't help but wonder if it was accurately Japanese, though I hope so; it was quite thrilling. Unfortunately, past that point the movie no longer had quite that level of other-worldly elegance.

In the post-WWII scenes, the actress did her best, but I simply couldn't believe this woman had the strength of will or character to successfully become a geisha again, let alone secure American financing for her possible patron. She'd been too insipid, too passive earlier as a geisha, for me to believe she had any emotional strength or reserves of courage. It made for slightly tedious viewing from that point on.

As with the book, I had one really powerful issue with the movie. In this case it was the commodification or "exotification" of a bit of Eastern culture, for Western consumption. The movie was almost entirely a Western creation, with the author, producer, director, and most of the crew being Westerners. Further, I was rather shocked at how simplified the movie was. Does Hollywood believe we're too stupid to understand a truly complex movie? Or was this more a case of Hollywood not really understanding Asian cultural nuances, and believing this was authentic enough?

Comparing the movie to the book more clearly highlights this issue — both in how the Asians in the movie are portrayed, and in how the cultural subtleties are presented. For example, in the US having both lips be large, full, and very red is considered attractive, and so that is what is shown in the movie. However, if I'm remembering correctly, geisha traditionally only colored their lower lip.

Another obvious Western conceit was the use of Chinese actresses to portray Japanese women, as if all Asians looked alike. I thought this was a truly unfortunate decision; it certainly outraged many Japanese. I can't help but wonder how we in the US would feel if we had an Asian-made movie released here — and all the "cowboys" in the movie were played by known gays, or all "white" people were portrayed by people who were "white enough," such as Arabs or Mexicans. There's nothing wrong with the Chinese actresses, just as there wouldn't be with Arab or Mexican actors… but if it would annoy us to see ourselves inaccurately portrayed, then can't we understand it might be annoying to others as well?

In a non-historical sense, there's also the apparent need in the US to simplify complexity whenever possible, as if the audience couldn't possibly grasp anything past clear-cut binary issues. I found the exploration of relationships in the book to be quite fascinating — from the strictly delineated obligations between men to the delicate, complex, ever-shifting web of financial support and friendship necessary to be a successful geisha.

However, the movie grievously simplified just about every relationship shown. Instead of the Chairman being obligated to Nobu-san due to Nobu-san's having saved the Chairman's company, the movie redefined the relationship as a simple rescue of the Chairman by Nobu-san, when they were both in the military.

Worse, instead of Nobu-san needing Sayuri to charm a Japanese official in order to convince the US officials that the Chairman's company was not associated with the military… the movie reduced that entire delicate dance of obligation to what appeared to be no more than a shared bath and expected sex between the US military officers and the geisha involved! That was just an embarrassment to me — are Americans really that simplistically fixated on the mythical East as their fantasy sex toys?!

There are other scenes where fascinating cultural complexities are similarly grotesquely flattened. For example, in the scene with the Baron (where he decides he must see Sayuri in the nude), there was a strong feeling of sympathy in the book for the girl trapped between the demands of propriety, and the selfish desires of a very politically powerful man who could effortlessly ruin her entire life. Everyone involved (the dresser, Mameha, the other geisha, even Sayuri and the Baron himself) knew what the Baron was angling for, and Sayuri's graceful avoidance of the Baron was a marvel, made up of equal parts luck and diplomacy.

For the movie to reduce that entire situation to a pathetic grope-scene with a sobbing girl overpowered by a dirty old man — followed by Mameha actually yelling at Sayuri for allowing the Baron to see her — absolutely ruined the political and social ramifications of the moment. In the movie, by yelling at Sayuri, Mameha implicitly blamed Sayuri for the Baron's disgusting behavior. What pathetic nonsense! Is this what Americans need? I certainly hope not.

Further, is there an element of jealousy added in as well by the (mostly male) movie makers? Later events in the movie would unfortunately seem to indicate this is so, when Mameha gives Sayuri's virginity to Dr. Crab instead of the Baron, despite the Baron being the highest bidder. In the book — which I found far more believable — Dr. Crab was the highest bidder, and Mameha was indeed true to her "little sister."

Clearly the book was quite aware of the lack of agency the poor young women had. I find myself wondering about my culture, that the movie makers felt the need to so reduce such complex social and emotional issues to nothing more than women squabbling over crumbs and handouts from the same powerful man, and blaming each other for the abuses of that same self-centered, pompous man. What a shame the movie makers seemed to feel the need to absolve the man of all responsibility for his actions.

Cultural thoughts

Golden did make a serious effort, from what I read, to be accurate. He's a Japanophile scholar, he speaks the language fluently, and he spent some time interviewing the geisha he knows. However, I've also done a little research into the author's informant. From what I've read, she's basically a spoiled upper class kid who was reassuringly destined to be a pampered and coddled geisha from the get-go, and who's never had a moment of worry or difficulty in her life. This compels me to question her value as informant, as well as the author's accuracy. After all, her "reality" would certainly be different from that of women who actually had to work at becoming geisha, right?

Also, considering how incredibly confidential the world of the geisha is supposed to be, the author really should have realized his "secret" informant would have serious issues with his publicly crediting her. She purportedly received angry letters and even "death threats" for breaking the code of silence of her profession. Apparently she sued, and they settled out of court after years of wrangling for an "undisclosed amount" which is reputed to be quite significant.

We should note here, of course, that geisha are one of those "fading" cultural icons in today's Japan. As Golden notes, pre-WWII there were something like 800 in the city he wrote of, while soon thereafter, post-war, there were less than 100. There are dramatically fewer now, as they take years and years to train, and they're a form of artisanry which cannot be hung on a wall, or used every day. Hardly anyone can afford them any more, let alone support them in the manner to which tradition says they should be. Instead they seem to be mostly hired by corporations, to provide decorative "color" at their major business events.

This story was a beautifully described and perhaps accurate portrayal of the hardships and dangers of what appears on the surface to be an easy and gracious life style. It clearly shows that — just like every other culture which has allowed ritualized female independence — there's a heavy cost in time, pain, financial danger and, ultimately, of being reduced to the status of an object — a beautiful and favored object d'art, true, but still simply a passive adjunct to the lives of the men who were the real movers and shakers of society.

In the end I believe the story was mostly an American fairy tale — the ugly duckling became a beautiful, famous, and desired swan, yet managed to end up with a handsome prince of her choosing. I'm not sure that'd be considered a good and happy ending by the Japanese, though. It's entirely possible a happy ending to the Japanese way of thinking would have had her triumphantly set up as an emotionally detached but financially successful object d'art with Nobu-san as her danna, or patron, spending the rest of her life in her beloved native country rather than self-exiled to the strange and alien city of New York. We in the US may consider New York City to be a sophisticated and cosmopolitan setting, but from what I've read the Japanese are somewhat more xenophobic. To a Japanese person, it's entirely possible Sayuri's self-chosen exile would be a tragic fall from grace, trapped living among barbarians.

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