Rob Marshall followed up his Oscar-winning Chicago with an adaptation of Arthur Golden’s international best-seller. But did the translation to screen work? Sadie Rose doesn’t think so. Not one bit.

10 years ago I was super excited to see this movie because I love this book. I’ve read it multiple times. It’s a basic story. (If Cinderella was a sex worker, which, come on, she totally would have been.) The book is well researched and beautifully written. Go read the book.

I saw this at the Guild 45 in Seattle. When I first tried to recall my movie experience, I thought, “I remember turning to my old roommate, Dani, and telling her how disappointed I was by the adaptation.” But then I did the math and realized I wouldn’t meet Dani for another two years. So whom did I see this movie with? I don’t know. I’m beginning to notice this pattern in my retrospectives. I always remember where I was, but have yet to remember who I was with. Very curious trick of the memory.

No matter who I was with, I remember thinking Rob Marshall captured none of the magic of the book. It was like vanilla missionary sex. Sure it was good. It was sex. But there was no messy passion or excitement or risks that could turn into rewards or embarrassment. It was all played very safely. Which isn’t to say it was bad, just underwhelming. So I was excited to watch it again. I haven’t seen it since 10 years ago in the theater with whoever that was, and it did win a few awards, so maybe I was too hard on it because I loved the source material. (It’s easily in my top 10 books.)

Then I watched it and oh, I was wrong. This movie is unnerving. Yes, it is a very accurate (maybe too precise) depiction of the book. It even uses (or over kills) the themes of water that are present in the book. And it is beautiful. The cinematography and art direction (which both won Oscars) tell much more of the story than the poorly written script filled with exposition (so much exposition!), which is an easy trap to fall into considering so much of the book is about a culture and time we Americans know little about. But there had to be a more artistic way to accomplish this task than dialogue of one character explaining the world to another character. The action that is kept in the script ends up making the book look like a poor man’s Lolita. And that is not what the story is about.

But don’t take my word for it (Reading Rainbow!). Let’s just explore the plot, not as it is presented by our leading lady Sayuri, but from the point of view of her love interest, the Chairman. He meets a crying nine year-old, Sayuri, on the street. She has beautiful blue eyes and he offers to buy her flavored ice to cheer her up, while talking to her about how much his children, presumably her age, love flavored ice (aka candy. He buys her candy! Straight up grooming behavior.) He lectures her on kindness and perseverance, which she adopts as virtues for the rest of the film. He then sees her six years later and orchestrates a way for her to become a geisha.* Once she becomes a geisha he mostly ignores her because the man who saved his life (Nobu) likes her. Nobu is a kind, hard working and moral man but disfigured from saving the Chairman’s life. The Chairman thinks this geisha is Nobu’s only chance at a little happiness. Then years later, the Chairman confesses his “love” for Sayuri, but only after Nobu tosses her aside. Technically the Chairman actually confesses his love for her nine-year-old self, telling her how he made her a geisha and then calls her by her childhood name. She was NINE! Ew. Not to mention she has spent every moment since he bought her candy trying to gain agency over her situation, only to find out he’s been coordinating her entire life and she’s actually been a pawn in his creepy “I want to have sex with that nine-year-old” plan.  I know this plot is technically in the book, and that this summery is antagonistic, but how they chose to adapt it to the screen really grossed me out.

The audience is undoubtedly supposed to be happy when they finally get together. It’s what the whole plot is driving towards. We are supposed to feel the love and admiration, but instead I felt like I needed a shower. And sure, if you’ve read the book, another way to read all this is that a major theme is the façade geisha woman put on. They are not seen as complete people but as performers, entertainers, shadows of woman, and the Chairman sees Sayuri as she was both before and throughout her journey, therefor he really loves her, not her artistry. The movie does try to get that idea across, but it just doesn’t stick, because Sayuri has spent more of the 138 minutes of the movie lustfully staring at the Chairman than speaking to him. The two have had, maybe, four conversations over the past 15 years. And while these conversations are the most deep of the film, they are super brief and really only as deep as a stagnant rain puddle.
*What is a geisha? They are high-end call girls. But don’t tell anyone who worked on the movie about that, as they won’t believe you. The script is filled with expositions like “We are not prostitutes,” “We do not work in that currency,” “We are not courtesans,” “We get clients on our feet not off them,” “We are true artists!” They don’t sell their flesh…um, but, they literally do. An important plotline in the film is the selling and bidding over Sayuri’s virginity. In fact one is not a full geisha until one sells their virginity. Sure, sex is not the only thing they do. They are trained in art, tea, and conversation. However, most sex workers will tell you companionship is what they are paid for, more than the physical sex. Just one modern day example: “cam girls.” They aren’t even in the physical proximity of their clients, but they are still sex workers. And trying to dismiss that work is a little insulting to the profession.
A positive is that the cinematography is rad. My favorite part is as young Sayuri tries to make her escape over the terracotta roofs of the city and she falls, the crack of her fall is the crack of Mother’s abacus in the following scene. Which considering Sayuri has been sold (into the sex trade – but is absolutely NOT a prostitute – ya, okay) and is in debt to her “Mother” (or madam or slave owner), it is just a really smart transition that explains how Sayuri’s fall will cost her. But in case you didn’t get it, or don’t know what an abacus is, Mother will explain it for you, in some hewn dialogue.
So this movie is one you can probably skip, unless you want to study cinematography, or how not to write exposition. However, if you haven’t read the book I do recommend it. It’s a page-turner, it gives you the feels, and you develop an understanding and compassion for a past culture and the sex workers who lived in it.
Extra floating thoughts:
Can someone explain why the movie opens with everyone speaking Japanese, then transitions into English with Japanese accents? It makes even less sense when the Americans occupy Japan by the end of the movie.
Chairman’s first words to Sayuri are “To pretty a day to be so unhappy…” Seriously, dude, you don’t know her. Her parents sold her into the sex trade. She doesn’t have to smile for you! But yes, by the end of the interaction he asks her straight up to smile, and she does it, and he pays her a large sum of money. For that smile. But not sex. Nope none of it is about sex. SMH.
Film Title: Memorias de una Geisha.