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I was first introduced to the extraordinary tale of village girl come geisha during a charity book sale. As usual, I was having a good old rummage when my hand struck the face of a Japanese beauty. It was the tattered book cover of Arthur Golden’s appraised ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’. I was not particularly interested in Japanese culture or history but the cover seemed all too enticing. Having now read the book, it seems the famous saying ‘Never judge a book by its cover’ does not always hold true.
Disguised as a memoir, this enchanting novel tells the fictional story of Chiyo Sakamoto, a girl of meagre beginnings who is sold to an okiya (lodging house for geisha in training), in the geisha-prominent city of Kyoto. It is here that she begins the fascinating journey that later leads her to become Sayuri, one of Kyoto’s most esteemed geisha. There were a number of aspects of the tale that I found to be emotionally moving, including the separation from her sister, the torment she faced at the hands of rival geisha Hatsumomo and the sale of her ‘mizuage‘, better known to us as her virginity.
Golden’s slow paced narrative was brimming with artful metaphors spoken through the seductive voice of Sayuri herself. Despite frequently describing unfamiliar Japanese customs, I found his poetic lyricism and recreation of Sayuri’s world to be utterly compelling. Beneath the story of a young woman’s struggle for independence and her ultimate triumph, there was also a tale of forbidden love. It was the heart warming act of kindness she received from a stranger that brought light to her darkest days. Her desire to be in his presence once more gave her geisha training a purpose and although she soon found herself in his company, her goal to win his heart did not come easy.
Image by Gerald Angeles
In 2005, Emmy-winning director and choreographer Rob Marshall released the film adaptation of this gripping novel. With mild controversy over the predominantly Chinese cast, leading characters were played by the likes of Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, Ken Watanabe and Michelle Yeoh. The movie in itself was not short of a breathtaking visual or two with Marshall having managed to adopt both the pace and intricate detail that the novel is so admired for. Although Ziyi brought to life the beauty and innocence of Sayuri, I think she fails to fully capture the immensity of the characters despair and her longing for love. The film serves as a fascinating exposé of Japanese culture but even with its cinematic excellence and winning actor performances, I feel that it falls short of being as wholly engaging as the book.
So, What Is Geisha?
Geisha are defined as traditional Japanese female entertainers, who serve as hostesses for their primarily male audience. They are trained from a tender age in the art of music, dance and conversation and dedicate their lives to the hospitality of their male clients. There is a common ‘misconception’ that likens the geisha profession to that of prostitution, with which I have a tendency to agree. Yes, their purpose is to entertain rather than provide sexual services but the coming of age ceremony, where a geisha’s virginity (mizuage) is sold to her ‘danna‘ (the highest bidder), leads me to think otherwise.
Prostitution is the practise of providing a sexual service in exchange for a monetary payment. The infrequency of the sexual act or the magnitude of the sum paid does not detract from the fact that this is a sale of sex for money and in my opinion, a counterpart to prostitution. Some may argue that modern day geisha willingly choose not to participate in the formerly mandatory ‘deflowering’ ceremony, but it still remains an important initiation to womanhood. As much as I was impressed by both the book and film version of this fascinating tale of geisha, I am troubled by how candidly this ‘rite of passage’ is depicted.
Controversies aside, I think Golden and Marshall have made a huge contribution in familiarising the western world with traditional Japanese culture that is so foreign to most westerners. The novel reads beautifully and is brought alive in the award-winning motion picture. Whether the lives of women dedicated to the exclusive entertainment and service of men is one to be celebrated, I shall let you decide.
Image by Glasgow’s Finest