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From Under A Rock: Memoirs of a Geisha

April 2, 2016 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
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From Under A Rock: Memoirs of a Geisha  


The real theme of this column is sharing the experience of film with others. Michael and I (Aaron) are film critics, but first and foremost, we are friends. And there’s just something special about watching and discussing film with your friends. Today, we’re visiting a film that was near and dear to another friend of mine’s heart, which I watched for the first time with her. Now I’m passing along the favor by introducing it to Michael.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Michael took Aaron on a ride with Drive. This week Aaron takes Michael out from under the proverbial rock on Memoirs of a Geisha.

Memoirs of a Geisha
Released: December 9th, 2005
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Written by: Robin Swicord
Zhang Ziyi as Chiyo Sakamoto/Sayuri Nitta
Gong Li as Hatsumomo
Ken Watanabe as Chairman
Kaori Momoi as Okaasan/Mother
Kōji Yakusho as Nobu

Aaron Hubbard: Memoirs of a Geisha is a movie that sticks in my mind because it’s a rather unique viewing experience in my personal history. And not just because of the award-winning cinematography or the talented cast, but because it deals with a subject that is a unique phenomenon of Japanese culture and has few parallels. It’s also a movie that is 100% concerned with the lives of women and with a plot that’s propelled by women and their choices. Outside of romantic comedies, that’s a rarity; even dramas with female leads typically have a mostly male cast. By necessity, this story has mostly women, and is almost an entirely Asian cast until the last hour or so of the movie.

Michael Ornelas: It’s certainly a unique subject matter, and that’s the number one reason I was excited to watch it. I’ve never been to Asia and their culture fascinates me. Specifically with Japan, my only real exposure to their culture is through their wrestling. I don’t even know much about Sumo (which I appreciate showing up in this movie). That said, I also know to take movies with a grain of salt when it comes to portraying an entire culture. I don’t think it would be fair to assume I know Geisha culture in a fully accurate way just because I watched this film.
Casting Controversy
Aaron: As I was doing research for this film, I was blown away by how much controversy was generated by the casting of Zhang Ziyo and Gong Li in this film, two Chinese actresses playing Japanese characters. Now, on the surface that’s enough to be a sketchy decision, but it was even worse because of what was going on between the two countries politically at the time. Many Asian countries, including China, North and South Korea, and the Philippines were staunchly anti-Japan during this time over a controversy where Japan was trying to cover up some of their war crimes throughout history. In regards to this movie, Japanese soldiers kidnapped many Chinese women to use as “comfort women” for the army. Seeing two Chinese actresses play Geisha, who are misunderstood to be common prostitutes, did not go over well and negatively impacted the careers of both women in their home country.

Michael: I feel like the casting, while not a travesty to typical Americans who don’t realize the cultural distinction between Asian countries, would be like casting Mark Wahlberg to play James Bond. He’s a good-looking white dude, but he’s of Irish descent and doesn’t really have any business playing a character who’s historically British. And in Memoirs, it’s a shame that this tarnished a movie that would have probably been better-received if it weren’t for the controversy, but it’s not like the movie isn’t without its issues. There’s still the fact that, while the film centers around women, many of them are catty and rarely rise above the misogynist stereotype of women in media. Most of the characters are one-dimensional, driven by one desire or goal and never straying to show other qualities that might define them. And much of the plot is structured like a soap opera where it’s big emotional reaction after the next. So those are my negative views on the movie. I promise I’ll go into the positive ones in the next section.

Aaron: I can definitely see that viewpoint. That said, I think it’s perhaps unfair to judge these women by the standards of our culture and what we want strong female characters to be like. These women are very much trapped in the lives they are in, with the main character literally being bought and owned by another until she can repay her debt. There isn’t really room to try and rise above your station in life, except by preying upon the whims of those around them. I think the movie was an interesting dance between the power that Geisha had over those around them; they were artists, entertainers, with the most powerful men in their town at their beckon call. Much more than common prostitutes, which existed in Japan just they exist everywhere else. But then you have moments where we realize how truly helpless they are as well. And that’s honestly kind of scary.
A Unique Look
Michael: While the film wasn’t received warmly by critics, it did secure several Academy Award wins and even more nominations. It’s no surprise, but most of those awards were technical, and I don’t think that’s necessarily negligible. I know several people don’t really care about those awards, but almost half the awards are for sound, picture, and staging. It won Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design while securing nominations for Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing. And it shows. I absolutely adored the look of this movie. It captured a culture visually to where I still would have appreciated the film even if it wasn’t released in English. The art design (sets) and costume design stuck out the most and made for a visually compelling film that was just as big of an undertaking as crafting a story.

Aaron: It’s interesting you brought up the idea of it not being in English. It occurred to me as I was watching this that it may be a little too westernized for its own good. You mentioned the soap opera aspect, and I definitely think it shows. I think it especially weakens Chiyo in respect to her relationship with the Chairman because American audiences (even the Award-Bait crowd) expects there to be a romance. And I think the more realistic dynamic there is that Chiyo would view the Chairman as the positive parental figure she’s never had. One act of kindness in a cruel world had a huge impact in her life, and that I get. But the emphasis should have been on her trying to become safe and out of the situation she was in, not on a poorly-fashioned love story. It really drags down the third act to me. As much as I liked the movie, I couldn’t help feeling like there was a better movie in here begging to get out.

Michael: I didn’t even realize I would have preferred that until you said it just now. It absolutely makes sense that she would be searching for a parental figure given her history. Ken Watanabe was great and I wanted more of him, but no in the way we did get him. But going back to the “look” of the movie, sadly Hollywood feels there’s more money in that final kiss between the two romantic leads than something deeper. And unfortunately, it may be true for the majority.
Appreciating Art You Don’t Love
Aaron: If there’s one thing about this film that really stood out to me, it’s that I appreciate the good things that are in it but feel somewhat underwhelmed by the total picture. There are so many moments here that I love. The opening was incredibly immersive and I felt Chiyo’s fear, lack of control or knowledge of what was going on, and the hopelessness of her situation. When the Chairman shows up to buy her sweet ice, it was such a moment of relief that it emotionally affected me. And then… after that it kind of stops being immersive. There are cool things, like the sumo match, and the amazing dance in the snow, and they are great, but I felt detached from them a bit. When you have a movie that you don’t love, it can be hard to decide what stands out more: the positive or the negative. Honestly, most movies are a bit of both, and I think it’s important to be able to analyze and appreciate both. A movie shouldn’t be dismissed just because it doesn’t get an A grade.

Michael: Personally, the Sumo match and the Geisha training were my favorite parts of the movie. Seeing Chiyo go through this transformation, learning what it takes to be a Geisha was interesting to me, mostly because I had know idea what was entailed with that life. And the Sumo match did more to build character for the film itself than any other scene. It was a bit heavy-handed in its symbolism, but I appreciated the effort. I also loved the visuals throughout the film. There was a lot to enjoy here even if I didn’t love it.

Aaron: The other thing I really appreciated in this movie was just how good Gong Li was. She had the unenviable task of playing a wholly unlikable character in Hatsumomo, the Geisha who is manipulative, cruel, arrogant, and actively tries to sabotage Chiyo’s career at every opportunity. And what stood out for is that even though the script never spells it out, there are brief flashes where you can see the sadness behind Hatsumomo’s actions. She desperately wants to be loved by someone, but her reputation for sleeping around sabotages her career at points. She’s cruel and manipulative, but that’s because the world she knows is that way. Gong Li’s facial expressions and body language allowed me to infer an entire rationale for her character’s actions. Not only does Hatsumomo serve as a perfect contrast to Chiyo because it’s what she could have become, but honestly? It’s not all that different from a lot of young girls today. When nobody has your back and everyone is looking to use you, you do what you can to survive. And sometimes that means losing any shred of goodness as a person. It was tragic to me, and helped infer the stakes of the story; if Chiyo could not escape her situation, that’s what she was destined to become.

Aaron: I may have incidentally picked the most controversial film we’ve watched for this column. I have enjoyed this film on both occasions that I’ve watched it and was surprised that it had such a low Rotten Tomatoes score (35%). But I think there’s several reasons behind that and it shouldn’t reflect on the fact that this is a solid and interesting movie. Not something I’d consider to be great, but well worth watching, and probably something I’ll see again in a few years when the mood strikes.


Michael: I didn’t love this, but I still found things to enjoy. I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as critical scores would indicate. Ziyi’s performance was charismatic and sympathetic in all the right ways, so at the very least we had a protagonist whose journey I cared to see unfold. This gets slightly higher than a “neutral” grade because I felt slightly more positively about the movie than negatively.


Aaron: So pretty close. I went back and forth between a C+ and B- myself but ultimately I think the movie held up for me on a second viewing, which I wasn’t sure it was going to do.

Michael: Yeah, I think the soap opera delivery is what dragged it down a little for me. Not a bad flick though.

What would you do to please Japanese businessmen?

Next week:

Michael: Last October I started a tradition that I will try to uphold for as long as it’s practical: leading up to Halloween, I watched a different horror movie every day. Well that provided me with many new horror movies that I can now safely say I love. Next week’s pick was the best of the ones I hadn’t seen before.
Aaron: Jeremey Thomas wrote about this a few months ago as one of his favorite horror films of this century, and I almost went looking for it myself before you brought it up as a potential choice. My growing appreciation for horror is entirely because of your recommendations, and you haven’t steered me wrong yet.

Michael: This movie has my single favorite shot in any horror film. And with horror, that actually means something. I’m sure you’ll love it.

What’s your favorite vampire movie? Don’t say Twilight

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Check out our past reviews!
Mission: Impossible, They Live, Marvel’s Daredevil, The Silence of the Lambs, 12 Angry Men, The Usual Suspects, The Boondock Saints, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Iron Giant, Fargo, American Psycho, 28 Days Later, Frankenstein, Crank, The Godfather: Part II, American Beauty, Rocky, Alien, Spaceballs, Star Wars: Clone Wars, The Muppets Christmas Carol, Reservoir Dogs, Superman: The Movie, Lethal Weapon, Double Indemnity, Groundhog Day, The Departed, Breaking Bad, Shane, Glengarry Glen Ross, Blue Ruin, Office Space, The Batman Superman Movie: World’s Finest, Drive, Memoirs of a Geisha

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The final score: review Average
The 411
With a strong cast, Oscar-winning cinematography, and a setting that is probably unfamiliar to most Western audiences, Memoirs of a Geisha certainly leaves an impression. But it gradually runs out of steam and falls a bit too much into storytelling cliches that muddle a potentially interesting narrative. There's a really great movie somewhere in this, but the end result is a really solid movie that we both enjoyed and recommend, but can't get too enthusiastic about.