Nominated for six Academy Awards, and winner of three, Memoirs Of A Geisha holds its own as one of the best films of 2005. Veteran Hollywood screenwriter Robin Swicord does a superb job of adapting Arthur Golden’s bestselling novel to the big screen. This film has all the elements of a classic drama – jealousy, politics, intrigue, forbidden love, and an abundance of internal and external conflicts of varying types. Viewers in search of a typical Hollywood blockbuster will be greatly disappointed, but those who appreciate a good character-driven film which takes the time to develop the motivations of its cast and build to a climax will discover a splendid gem which offers a welcome escape from reality.
Memoirs Of A Geisha is narrated from the viewpoint of a nine year-old Japanese girl named Chiyo (Ziyi Zhang). Born into a poor fishing family, Chiyo and her sister are sold into slavery by their father. Chiyo is soon separated from her sister and finds herself in a geisha house where her new master, Mother (Kaori Momoi), will determine her destiny. Although only nine years of age, Chiyo sparks the ire of the much older Hatsumomo (Li Gong), the most celebrated geisha of the house, who accurately perceives Chiyo as a fitting rival.
Li Gong is excellent in her role as the vindictive, yet human, adversary, and her character manages to have Chiyo removed from geisha school and condemned to the life of a common slave. However, Chiyo’s life takes a turn for the better following a chance encounter with The Chairman (Ken Watanabe). Flanked by two geisha, The Chairman extends his kindness to Chiyo, prompting her to develop a lifelong crush and to dream of one day becoming a geisha herself. Chiyo’s wish comes true when a geisha from another house, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), offers to personally train her, setting up an inevitable conflict between the two and Hatsumomo and her understudy. Meanwhile, the horrors of war and her lifelong pursuit of The Chairman’s love burden Chiyo with additional hardships.
Although some traditionalists and geisha experts might take issue with the portrayal of geishas in general, the film certainly offers an interesting glimpse into a world and culture most Americans will find intriguing. Despite its two hour and twenty-five minute running time, Memoirs Of A Geisha is a captivating film that seems much shorter in duration. Like most films adapted from a novel, those who enjoyed the book will either love it or hate it depending on how well they perceive the switch to the big screen. But even those who hate it must admit that the costume and set design are exquisite and leave little room for improvement. At times, the cast speaks with heavy accents which can be confusing at moments, but overall, the scenes flow well from one to the next. With the exception of some American actors near the conclusion (Ted Levine of Monk fame plays a US Army Colonel), the majority of the cast is composed of Chinese and Japanese actors/actresses who are relatively unknown to American audiences – although Ken Watanabe might be recognizable given recent roles in The Last Samurai (2003) and Batman Begins (2005). The utilization of this cast helps focus audience attention on the merits of the film itself and not on a cast of stars, and this helps, rather than hinders, the film. As such, Memoirs Of A Geisha is a film most fans of the genre will thoroughly enjoy.