For centuries, Japan's geisha have lent a touch of beauty, mystery and elegance to the meetings of rich businessmen who could afford their services. Dancing, singing and conversing are all a part of their repertoire. A geisha's charm and prestige enhance the reputation of any man who hires her to entertain him and his clients.
Nine-year-old Chiyo enters this glamorous world against her will. Along with her sister, Satsu, Chiyo is sold by her impoverished father into an okiya—a geisha household—ruled by the iron will of a hardened matriarch who's aptly named Mother. A single glance at Satsu is all Mother needs to know she's not geisha material, and the young woman is shuffled off to the "pleasure district" to become a prostitute. Chiyo, however, shows promise, and Mother accepts her into the household.
Chiyo's inquisitive, strong-willed spirit earns the ire of the reigning geisha in Mother's okiya, the queen-like Hatsumomo. The older, established geisha treats Chiyo cruelly and almost sabotages Chiyo's chance of one day becoming a geisha herself. Coaching Chiyo through this treacherous territory are the matronly Auntie and another young geisha-in-training named Pumpkin.
Chiyo's destiny is shaped by two fortuitous events. A businessman known only as The Chairman notices her in the market one day, then buys Chiyo a sweet treat and gives her the change. His generosity wins Chiyo's heart, and she dreams of one day winning his in return. Then a well-known geisha named Mameha asks Mother's permission to take Chiyo under her wing. Mameha sees in her the potential to become the greatest geisha in history.
Under Mameha's tutelage, Chiyo becomes a geisha and receives a new name: Sayuri. Hatsumomo's jealousy grows as Sayuri's star rises, but nothing can stop the young woman from attracting the attention of the most powerful men in the city. One businessman in particular, Nobu, becomes her primary patron. And Nobu's right-hand man is none other than The Chairman.
As Sayuri blossoms, though, she learns the heartbreaking lesson that her own desire for love can never supersede being a geisha. A romantic relationship with The Chairman seems forever out of reach—until the end of World War II brings American forces to Japan and changes everything.
Chiyo is a spunky, determined little girl who is devastated at being separated from her sister. Accordingly, Chiyo takes great risks to be reunited. Mother and Hatsumomo treat Chiyo terribly, but the little girl is sustained by the kindness of Pumpkin and Auntie. As Chiyo struggles to deal with the harsh reality of her new life, Pumpkin advises, "It's easier if you just forget everything." And when Mother orders Chiyo whipped (for an indiscretion Hatsumomo engineered), Auntie delivers about a dozen lashes with a switch and quietly tells Chiyo, "I will beat you hard so Mother doesn't beat you harder."
The Chairman's dealings with Chiyo (and later, Sayuri) are marked with generosity and magnanimity. It's clear that he returns Sayuri's affection, but he refuses to pursue the relationship because doing so would put him in competition with his boss and friend, Nobu, to whom he owes a great debt.
While there are important questions to be asked about the ways the geisha culture objectifies women (see my "Conclusion"), that tradition does value the important role of beauty in a culture.
After meeting The Chairman, Chiyo goes to the temple to pray that she might meet him again and leaves the money he gave her as an offering.
The movie insists geisha are not prostitutes. But one important exception is the horrific practice of auctioning off the virginity of each geisha-to-be. Mameha establishes a bidding war for Sayuri's maidenhood that fetches a record price. The next scene shows a much older man untying Sayuri's kimono, implying what's coming next without showing it. Conversation leading up to this scene also includes a euphemistic description of sex as an eel in a cave.
Equally disturbing—and from a visual perspective, more disturbing—is a scene in which a powerful businessman named The Baron forcibly removes Sayuri's many-layered kimono. He tells her he just wants to look at her (we see her naked back as she cowers before him). Even though he doesn't touch her, this scene still has the emotional impact of witnessing a rape.
The film also includes two other brief sex scenes (neither of which include nudity). Chiyo glimpses Hatsumomo having sex with her secret lover, and we see a bare back and hear heavy breathing. A geisha and an American soldier begin to have sex.
Three geisha are apparently topless as they share drinks with Japanese men and American soldiers in a natural pool (only their bare shoulders are visible above the dark water). Pumpkin wears a barely belted kimono that reveals her bra and cleavage. And it's implied that Mother inspects Hatsumomo's body to determine if she's been having sex with anyone.
Much of the violence in Memoirs of a Geisha involves the volatile Hatsumomo. Twice she throws things, and once she shoves Pumpkin to the floor. She picks a fight with Sayuri that results in the two trading blows and rolling on the floor. That fight lights the okiya on fire; once it's blazing, Hatsumomo throws several lit lanterns to the floor.
Chiyo falls off the roof of the okiya. We don't witness the impact but see her later with a bandage on her chin. Twice Chiyo is beaten with a switch.
Crude or Profane Language
One character calls another a "bastard."
Drug and Alcohol Content
The geisha's rich customers frequently drink sake (Japanese wine made from rice) and smoke cigarettes. Mother utilizes a long, elegant cigarette holder in most of her scenes. Hatsumomo and Pumpkin also indulge cigarette habits, and Hatsumomo and a friend get very drunk. American GIs in a bar are depicted as loud, carousing drunkards.
Other Negative Elements
A scene in a bathhouse shows a woman's bare back and perhaps a naked (and very blurry) woman seen briefly from the side in the background. Sayuri and Mameha are wrapped in bath towels.
To inflame a doctor's lust for Sayuri (for the impending bidding war for her virginity), Mameha intentionally cuts Sayuri's leg high on her thigh (off camera). Mameha tells the doctor the cut came from a scissors accident; he stares longingly at her leg before stitching it up. Hatsumomo also acts deceptively to undermine the bidding for Sayuri's virginity; she spreads lies that Sayuri is regularly sleeping with sailors.
When American soldiers arrive after World War II, they're depicted as womanizers eager to pay Japanese women for sex. In that context, Nobu asks Sayuri to help secure American financing for a business deal using her geisha charm. It's no surprise when one of the Americans simply assumes she'll have sex with him.
Memoirs of a Geisha brings Arthur Golden's popular 1997 novel to the big screen. As it ushers us into the geisha's world, the film explores the tension between individual autonomy and conformity to societal conventions. Sayuri longs for the freedom to choose to love. "I want a life that is mine," she tells Mameha. Her mentor counters, "We don't become geisha to pursue our own destiny." As her hopes for happiness fade, Sayuri tells us, "The heart dies a slow death, shedding each hope like leaves until one day there are none. No hopes, none remain. It is not for a geisha to want, to feel."
Even as these women devote their lives to entertaining their patrons, they lose their identities and, arguably, their very selves. Memoirs offers little explicit commentary on how men treat these alluring women. But I believe it does illustrate how deeply demeaning the objectification of the geisha ultimately is. Though that objectification is allegedly not sexual (a claim that's undermined by the rapacious behavior of men such as The Baron), it still dehumanizes the women who participate by treating them as possessions to be displayed rather than as the human beings they are.
Dr. Crab, who bids for Sayuri's virginity, sums it up well when he tells her, "You must be quite a commodity." Whatever beauty the geisha culture may appear to have on the surface, the reality for these women is an ugly one. Perhaps that's why this story left me feeling so cold in the end.