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A Glimpse at the Life of a Geisha

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A Glimpse at the Life of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha is a brilliant introduction to Japanese culture, the geisha way of life, and the East for an uneducated Westerner. The film, produced in 2005, is an adaptation of Arthur Golden's novel published in 1997. Directed by Rob Marshall, the film takes place in Kyoto, Japan during the Showa Era in 1929 and preceeding World War II. The Showa period is described as an era of "enlightened peace and harmony" and corresponds to the reign of the Showa Emperor, Hirohito. During the pre-1945 period, Japan fell to totalitarianism, ultranationalism, and fascism, which resulted in Japan's invasion of China in 1937. This only became a fraction of the global social conflicts circulating at the time, like the Great Depression and the Second World War. Japan's defeat in World War II brought about radical change and for the first time in history, Japan was occupied by foreign powers. Memoirs of a Geisha focuses on the idea that "things aren't always as they appear" as well as a reoccurring theme of water, used as a motif when related to the main character, Chiyo. The film itself is an American production so there are obvious compromises to cultural authenticity; however, a few aspects of the film depict actual historical conditions.

The storyline sets off in a small fishing village by the Japanese coastline in Gion, a well-known geisha district. Chiyo and her sister, Satsu are sold into slavery, Chiyo to an okiya, a traditional geisha house where she lives and works to pay off her debt. By chance, Chiyo meets the Chairman in the marketplace, who she spends the rest of her life longing reconnect with and to be sponsored by one day. Due to her startling eyes, Chiyo trains to become a geisha and is renamed "Sayuri," signifying her transformation from childhood into a maiko, apprentice geisha. The dramatic change of direction in Chiyo's life is a clear demonstration that "things aren't always as they appear." Chiyo is a very poor girl from a fishing village who ultimately becomes the most popular geisha. In a more general sense, geisha themselves display the same theme. The film puts a great deal of emphasis on the underlying meaning of a geisha. Mameha, Chiyo's geisha trainer tells her, "Geisha are not courtesans, and we're not wives. We sell our skills, not our bodies. We create another secret world, a place only of beauty. The very word "geisha" means artist, and to be a geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art." Although geisha may only seem to be entertainers, we learn there is more beneath the white face makeup and red lips, such as the art of dance and of conversation.

Although the Chairman clearly brightens Chiyo's mood through his simple act of kindness, the Chairman signifies more than a rich businessman offering money and a cherry snow cone. The Chairman changes Chiyo from a girl who loses her parents and works as a slave, to a woman with purpose who dreams of becoming a geisha. Chiyo holds onto the Chairman's handkerchief for the majority of the film, symbolic of not only her yearning to reconnect with him, but of the remainder of her life. Similarly, Chiyo's releasing of the handkerchief to the wind is representative of the fact that her life is forever lost and completely lacking of any reason without the Chairman.

Like the Chairman, other main characters such as his business partner, Nobu and a popular geisha, Hatsumomo illustrate the idea that "things aren't always as they appear." Nobu, a main male character has mutilated burns all over his face, and consequently, is characterized solely by his scarred face and his known dislike of geishas. His damaged appearance is misleading as he shows a very loyal and kind temperament through his admiration of Chiyo. Hatsumomo is a terribly beautiful geisha of the okiya where Chiyo resides, however she presents the opposite argument of Nobu, as she displays a deception of beauty. She has the most striking appearance, however her lack of inner beauty reoccurs throughout the film. Mother is the highest authority figure in the okiya, yet she is still not sparred of Hatsumomo's terrible wrath. Hatsumomo adds to the theme of "things aren't as they appear" as she tricks Chiyo time and time again. Her jealousy gets the best of her when she tries to burn down the okiya and continues to spread awful rumors about Chiyo to her possible dannas, or male sponsors.

Another very powerful theme that emerges throughout the film and more specifically, Chiyo's life, is the idea of water. The theme is made note of for the first time when viewers learn Chiyo's father was a fisherman. Chiyo is linked to water several times, first and foremost, by her birthmother who shares her insight, "Water can carve its way, even through stone. And when trapped, water makes a new path." The film places an emphasis on the importance of Chiyo's ability to overcome obstacles. Chiyo is torn from her sister, Satsu and her parents and has to continue to make the best of her slave life in the okiya. After finally tracking down Satsu, Chiyo learns that both of her parents have died. She never gives up hope, as she continues to endure Hatsumomo's ugly wrath and simultaneously trains to become a well-desired geisha.

Not only does Chiyo possess similar attributes to water, she is told numerous times that she has eyes like rain: Chiyo is one with the water. Mameha enlightens Chiyo with her wisdom: "I see water in you. Water is powerful. It can wash away Earth, put out fire, and even destroy iron." Chiyo embodies powerful force, yet she is soothing and beautiful. Frequently living with a 'go with the flow' attitude, Chiyo is also determined to pave her own road despite what obstacles may lay in her way.

Water is not only verbalized in the film, but also appears visually on several occasions. The scenes constantly cut from water to Chiyo time and again. For example, a stream appears running down the street before the movie cuts to Chiyo washing her feet. In another scene, the camera focuses in on water in a bucket, which eventually reveals

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