Memoirs of a Geisha

| December 12, 2005

If you’ve watched the Rose Parade for any length of time, you know what kind of float wins the Sweepstakes Trophy. It is almost always the most colorful, larger than life, captivating melding of flowers and imagination. Such is the case with movies that want to be chosen for Best Picture of the Year. They will generally have larger than life stories that take us where we would never think to go and are usually photographed with….. an aura of …..”This is how to make a movie.” Oh, and they will take over two hours to tell that story.
Such is the case with Memoirs of a Geisha, the directorial follow up by Rob Marshall to 2002’s Chicago. And while I will say that this is one of the most beautiful films I have seen this year, I am not sure it would get to my Top 5 to get that eagerly sought after Best Film nomination. Although it would have beaten last year’s Sideways.
The best description I found of this movie reads like this: In 1929 an impoverished nine-year-old named Chiyo from a fishing village is sold to a geisha house in Kyoto’s Gion district and subjected to cruel treatment from the owners and the head geisha Hatsumomo. Her stunning beauty attracts the vindictive jealousy of Hatsumomo, until she is rescued by and taken under the wing of Hatsumomo’s bitter rival, Mameha. Under Mameha’s mentorship, Chiyo becomes the geisha named Sayuri, trained in all the artistic and social skills a geisha must master in order to survive in her society. As a renowned geisha she enters a society of wealth, privilege, and political intrigue. As World War II looms Japan and the geisha’s world are forever changed by the onslaught of history.
But it isn’t the story that is the reason to watch Memoirs. This story of the downtrodden under achiever rising to the top has been done thousands of times (Rudy is still the best) and is a thinly hidden plot line here. The reason is to see the movie is the cinematography. It is breathtaking. Backdrops both opulent and slum are detailed and stunning. The costuming, as are the kimonos worn by the geisha, is colorful and eye capturing.
When you couple this with the fine acting performances it is truly a wonderful movie. Ziyi Zhang plays Sayuri. She is likely to get much consideration for an Oscar. Michelle Yeoh is excellent as Mameha as is Kaori Momoi who plays her rival Geisha house owner who originally buys Chiyo. Newcomers Li Gong and Suzuka Ohgo play Hatsumomo and Chiyo. Gong smolders and captures her every scene and Ohgo’s smile similarly lights up the screen whenever she appears. Ken Watanabe (from the Last Samurai) is Sayuri’s dream man The Chairman and his partner Nobu is played wonderfully by Kuji Yakusho. This almost entirely Japanese cast truly puts on a superior performance. So wonderful when Hollywood continues to give us drivel like Yours, Mine, and Ours and Cheaper by the Dozen 2 (TWO?? Gosh, should have stopped with the original). What detracted from this ensemble was the distracting appearance of Mako, who has been in “every” movie requiring a Japanese figurehead: Pearl Harbor, Seven Years in Tibet, Bulletproof Monk, The Perfect Weapon, Pacific Heights – the list goes on and on.
When you are looking for a distraction this holiday season and want to spend a couple of hours in a foreign country in another time, Memoirs will very aptly transfer you and like any good geisha, keep you in rapt attention and entertained. That IS why we go to the movies.

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