#62. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
“I was living only half in Gion; the other half of me lived in my dreams of going home. This is why dreams can be such dangerous things: they smolder on like a fire does, and sometimes consume us completely.” (Page 106, Para 1)
Memoirs of a Geisha is a novel by an American author from Chattanooga, Tennessee, of all places. Arthur Golden published this remarkable novel in 1997. The novel, told in first person perspective, tells the fictional story of a geisha working in Kyoto, Japan, before and after World War II. It contains many Japanese terms for aspects of the geisha culture, occasionally using the Kyoto counterparts. Golden holds degrees in Japanese history and art history with a specialization in Japanese art, and while he was learning and working abroad, met Mineko Owasaki, a retired geisha who interviewed on numerous occasions. I have to admit that I’m relatively unfamiliar with geisha, possessing only a narrow-minded thought that geisha were well-kept women, but when compared with kept women of other cultures, there doesn’t seem to be much difference.
“I stumbled out into the courtyard to try to flee my misery, but of course we can never flee the misery that is within us.” (Page 106, Para 2)
After the Japanese edition of the novel was published, Arthur Golden was sued for breach of contract and defamation of character by Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha he had interviewed for background information while writing the novel. The plaintiff asserted that Golden had agreed to protect her anonymity if she told him about her life as a geisha, due to the traditional code of silence about their clients. However, Golden listed Iwasaki as a source in his acknowledgments for the novel, causing her to face a serious backlash, to the point of death threats. In his behalf, Arthur Golden countered that he had tapes of his conversations with Iwasaki. Eventually, in 2003, Golden’s publisher settled with Iwasaki out of court for an undisclosed sum of money. It must be wondered if he had kept her anonymity, would she have sued him for not giving her the appropriate credit? It’s hard to say. She did later, however, go on to write her own autobiography, which shows a very different picture of twentieth-century geisha life than the one shown in Golden’s novel. The book was published as Geisha, a Life in the U.S. and Geisha of Gion in the U.K.
While doing a bit of online research to help me understand culture and terms, I learned that prior to the mid to late 1700s, geisha (professional entertainers) were primarily men who sang, played music, told jokes, and performed dances and theatrical presentations. They first appeared around 1600 and became a staple of social functions. As women entered the profession, however, men who enjoyed the performances preferred the charms of women to the antics of men, and who wouldn’t? Even in the eighteenth century, female geisha wore their hair in elaborate styles, applied distinctive makeup, wore beautiful silk kimonos and intricately tied obis, and followed certain rules of propriety.
Geisha live in houses owned by whoever purchased them and paid for their education. The geisha’s education includes dancing, singing, playing music, performing tea ceremonies, conversation, etiquette, local dialect, and serving food and beverages. The house staff is responsible for managing a geisha’s schedule, booking her appearances at parties, performances at teahouses and events, and private gatherings. To me this, this gives me the impression of a highly paid and talented escort.
In 2005, a film version was released. film director Rob Marshall made a film version of the novel. It stars the Chinese actresses Zhang Ziyi as Sayuri, Gong Li as Hatsumomo, and Michelle Yeoh (who is Malaysian Chinese) as Mameha; and Japanese actors Ken Watanabe as the Chairman, Suzuka Ohgo as Sayuri’s childhood incarnation Chiyo, and Youki Kudoh as the adult Pumpkin. Filming was primarily done in California, and in some locations in Kyoto, including Kiyomizu-dera and Fushimi Inari-taisha. It was nominated for and won numerous awards, including nominations for six Academy Awards, three of which – Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design – were won. Despite the quality of the movie, Marshall was criticized in Japan for choosing a Chinese actress rather than a Japanese one for a role having so much to do with traditional Japanese culture.