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With: Zhang Ziyi, Ken Watanabe, Michelle Yeoh, Koji Yakusho, Gong Li, Kaori Momoi, Youki Kudoh
Written by: Robin Swicord, Doug Wright, based on a novel by Arthur Golden
Directed by: Rob Marshall
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature subject matter and some sexual content
Language: English
Running Time: 144
Date: 11/29/2005

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Japanese American

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The first thing an astute viewer might notice about Memoirs of a Geisha is that most of its leading players are not Japanese. It's as if the filmmakers decided that all Asian faces look pretty much the same and that American viewers won't be able to tell the difference anyway. Still, we've come a long way since the 1950s when white Americans wearing eye makeup would play these characters.

This is not to detract from the playing of Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li or Michelle Yeoh, who put as much skill and emotional outpouring into their roles as their Japanese-born counterparts Ken Watanabe and Koji Yakusho. But all the actors are hamstrung from the very beginning by the Westernized material -- everyone speaks English at all times -- and by the bland direction from Rob Marshall (Chicago).

Based on the novel by Arthur Golden, the story begins when young Sayuri and her sister are sold to separate Geisha houses to work as servants. Sayuri immediately develops bad blood with her senior, Hatsumomo (Gong Li), but finds hope when she meets the kindly Chairman (Watanabe).

When she reaches adulthood and is played by Zhang Ziyi, a geisha from another house, Mameha (Yeoh), buys Sayuri and teaches her to be the greatest geisha of all time, commanding the highest price ever paid for her virginity. That's where the American viewpoint comes in; if this were a truly Japanese story, the focus wouldn't necessarily be on "getting ahead" and "becoming the greatest." It's like the Rocky of the geisha set.

Marshall can't seem to generate any eroticism or romance between these characters; the razzle-dazzle he showed on Chicago is nowhere to be found here. He gets some fine performances, especially from Li who steps away from her usual frigidly noble roles for an infectious, bitchy turn as the film's villainess. And the great Koji Yakusho (best known for his several appearances in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's thrillers), makes an admirable English language debut as one of the Chairman's colleagues, who makes unwanted advances on Sayuri. But no one actually seems human; they're imaginary, exoticized versions of human beings.

It's unlikely that even proper casting and a Japanese director could have made much out of this material, though. Its distant gaze precludes anyone but Americans from even wanting to see or experience it. It has a kind of surface beauty that will no doubt win it many admirers and perhaps even some year-end awards, but it's a beauty without grace or poetry. It's not good enough for a geisha.

Steven Spielberg served as a co-producer.

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