Movie Review: “Memoirs of a Geisha” vs. “A Geisha”

The film “Memoirs of a Geisha” is the story of a geisha told from a Western point of view. The narrator is the lead character who is a geisha, whose life is the main plot upon which this movie is built upon. It tells the story of a young girl who was sold by his father to become a geisha due to their poverty. The period is before World War II, and she goes through a lot of trials and at first leads the life of a servant or a slave to a well-known geisha.

It is already near her young adulthood that she gets to be trained to become part of this elite circle of women who exude femininity and grace.

She gets to be called “Sayuri” and she becomes one of the highest paid geishas during her time. Sayuri however does not desire money or fame but to be loved by the Captain, who, in the end, becomes her lover, as they reveal their true feelings for each other.

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The movie is one which caters to the emotions and tugs at the hearts of the viewers as it relates the transformation of a poor, young, innocent, uneducated child to become a sophisticated, well-mannered and confident young lady desired and fantasized by men.

It is said that the movie was overwhelmingly received in the US but not as much in Japan because of the negative image of the geisha projected in the movie. This viewpoint is often referred to as orientalism.

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Orientalism can be defined as a Western perspective of the ‘orient’ or that which is not of ‘western’ descent. The idea of orientalism is usually referred to as the rationale which promotes the persistence of stereotypes attached to Asian cultures. Orientalism reinforces the Orient’s contrast to the Western construct, where anything from the ‘orient’ was discriminated against in a manner akin to the US perception of African-Americans.

There is a certain stigma attached to being of ‘oriental’ lineage since one would be regarded as part of an inferior race. Although there were no apparent portrayals of discrimination by Americans against Asians in the movie, the undercurrents of the movie still reinforced the idea that the Japanese had to bow down to their colonizers as in the way the Chairman wanted to please the Americans to turn them in his favor. With the help of Sayuri, he was able to succeed in doing this.

As such, the concept of Orientalism is carried forward and even further propagated, to the detriment of those who are part of the ‘orient’, hence, the vicious cycle and the continually widening gap between east and west. In the early times, it is said that geishas were renowned for providing entertainment to their patrons by performing onstage. Geishas were talented and known to be actresses, erotic dancers and singers who were also trained to play musical instruments. Geisha schools were prevalent in the early 17th century, and girls were trained to become geishas at an early age.

Becoming a geisha was a highly-regarded profession, and during this period, wives were taken merely for the sake of child-bearing and caring for the house. Japanese customs allowed married men to go to teahouses and geisha pleasure quarters for entertainment, romantic liaisons and sometimes -- but not always -- sexual activities. Geishas are highly-skilled at manipulating their clients and it is said that geishas mainly hold back the idea of sex, by way of their charming ways and poised seduction techniques -- which is one of the reasons the men persist in revisiting the geisha houses for entertainment.

Perhaps, this is the reason that individuals who uphold a Western view of geishas think that the ultimate end of a client-geisha acquaintance will end in a sexual activity, which is not always the case. One of the biggest misconceptions pertaining to geishas is that they do sexual favors for their clients, although contemporary, legitimate geishas do not. Furthermore, the predominantly Western connotation that geishas are high-class prostitutes or escorts is also a fallacy. In general, the portrayal of the geishas in the movie is a far cry from the original geishas in Japan.

Sex is a major selling point of the movie; “Memoirs of a Geisha includes many detailed sexual scenes which satisfy the Western appetite” (Akita). Despite acknowledging the fact that geishas are not synonymous with prostitutes, the film’s director Rob Marshall delivers a different message through the film. As mentioned earlier, the major idea somehow pointed to geishas as glorified prostitutes or sophisticated women engaged in the flesh trade. This is somehow shown in the way Sayuri was portrayed, especially at the time when a bidding was made by the most wealthy men in the locality relating to her “deflowering” or the mizuage ceremony.

Another sexual reference made is the oft-repeated term “water” which was said to have been seen in Sayuri’s eyes, a quality which was said to connote a high level of sexuality among the Japanese – again as viewed from the Westerner’s perspective. Sayuri as a child was also shown as one who was in someway inclined to like watching sex and sexual activities being done by the senior geisha with a man in the house where she served. This reduces the main character into a kind of individual who craves for sex at such a young age, hence, her strong desire to become a geisha.

The movie also exoticized the character of the geisha in that they were viewed as beautiful, mysterious, striking, seductive, submissive, subservient, obedient and elegant all at the same time. Geishas wore colorful kimonos, made-up their faces with special white make-up and used charcoal for their eyebrows, and their hair drawn up in a chignon with pins and other adornments decorated around the hair bun. Geishas were also made to sleep on special neck supports instead of pillows so that they could retain their hairstyle for a long time.

They also wore special slippers which helped them walk in a different manner that would elicit more attention, especially from the potential male clients. There was also a scene in the movie where the geishas and their clients are seen in a public bath where they were shown all naked every one of them dipped together in a common pool where they shared banter and drinks. This somehow became a prelude to the sexual activity that each pair would eventually have immediately afterwards. The film also had some element of romanticism interspersed in it in several instances.

One would be the part where Sayuri as a child would feel infatuated to a stranger who buys her an iced sweet candy. The captain who is 30 years her senior, gives Sayuri additional money inserted in his handkerchief so that she can buy more of the sweets if she wants to. What Sayuri does is she goes to the temple, drops all the coins in the donation chamber, makes a wish and pulls/tugs on the bell to make it ring, praying that someday, she and the man will meet again which indeed comes true. She keeps the handkerchief and cuts a newspaper picture of the Captain and puts them in a box together with her most precious treasures.

Another part is when, as a geisha, she was on the verge of saying her feelings to the captain, but she is again unable to continue because her client has arrived. She is frustrated but helpless and the emotional status of Sayuri was sufficiently delivered to the viewer. In another incident, she asks her friend Pumpkin to call on Nobu, the friend of the Captain who expressed desire for her, and to whom the Captain was indebted to. She wanted to discourage Nobu’s feelings so she concocted a plan where she would have sex with a US soldier and Nobu would catch them doing the sexual act.

Not knowing that Pumpkin also had feelings for the Captain, Sayuri was shocked to find out that it was the Captain whom Pumpkin had called and not Nobu. Feeling remorse for the plan which she had set up, Sayuri decided to give up on the Captain for she knew that it was too late to undo what had ensued. She threw away the long-kept handkerchief that belonged to the Captain, and decided to turn over a new leaf in her life. Fortunately, it was true love which prevailed and the story ended with Sayuri in the arms of the Captain who disregarded what had transpired.

Another film which also deals with geishas is the 1953 movie “A Geisha”. This black-and-white film was directed by a Japanese named Kenji Mizoguchi. The plot is about a 16-year-old girl named Eiko, who seeks the help of a senior Geisha named Miyoharu. Eiko ran away from home because she feared her Uncle who wanted her to do sexual favors for him to repay the debt incurred for her mother’s funeral. Eiko asks Miyoharu’s help to be a geisha, a request which Miyoharu obliges to being a friend of her mom. Miyoharu takes Eiko under her wings but first asks the consent of Eiko’s father, who, at first, declines.

Being matured enough and determined to become a geisha, Eiko gives her personal consent to Miyoharu and Miyoharu decides to push through with Eiko’s training even without her parent’s consent. She trains Eiko to become a full-fledged geisha, and within a year, Eiko is ready. Before her debut, Miyoharu seeks the help of Okimi to procure a loan for Eiko’s expenses. Okimi owns the teahouse where Miyoharu works, and she grants the loan of 300,000 yen to Miyoharu. Eiko is introduced to the community as Miyoei. On her first day of work, Miyoei meets Kusuda, who, unknown to both of them, was the one who lent the amount of 300,000 yen to Okimi.

At this time, Kusuda is with Kanzaki, who is immediately smitten by Miyoharu. Kusuda invites Miyoharu and Miyoei to the music festival in Tokyo, which they both accede to. It was not known to them that Kusuda had planned the trip for Miyoharu to sleep with Kanzaki, and Miyoei with him, in order to seal a business deal. Somehow, Kusuda was able to convince Miyoharu to go to Kanzaki’s room, but when he started making sexual advances to Miyoei, the latter screamed and fought back and Kusuda ended up in the hospital.

Miyoharu declined other invites by Kanzaki, and this made Okimi furious because both of them – Miyoharu and Miyoei – were destroying her reputation in the locality. Slowly, they -- Miyoharu and Miyoei -- lost their engagements and they were losing money. Due to desperation, at a certain point, Miyoei decided to go to Okimi to inform her that she was now willing to apologize to Kusuda, and that she was now amenable to go out with him. Okimi called up Miyoharu to inform her of this but Miyoharu asked Okimi to send Miyoei home and that instead, she would be the one to go and see Kanzaki immediately.

Kanzaki is delighted to see Miyoharu and the latter stays with him for the night. The next day, Miyoharu goes back home with an armful of gifts for Miyoei, but she is angry because she knows where Miyoharu had been. Miyoharu explains that she was only guarding her innocence, and that she was willing to do what she did for her because she was the only family she had. Miyoei finally understands and they embrace. The phone rings twice reminding them of their upcoming engagements for the night so they hurry up and prepare themselves for work. Having another geisha movie from a different perspective was certainly a different experience altogether.

The story is also about a young girl’s life and transformation into a geisha, but this time, it is told from the Asian point of view. The two films are five decades apart and yet there were significant similarities and differences between them. Some similarities are in the costume like the geisha school, the rigid training, the kimono and the obi, the white make-up, the special attention given to the hair design, the special geisha slippers, the neck support for sleeping, the wooden houses, the tea house, the soft-spoken manner of addressing a client, the geisha’s role as an entertainer and the necessary attentiveness to clients.

The clients were men, the teahouses served as places to socialize in, and geishas held a high place in the society. The setting is of the typical Japanese backdrop which was authentic and true to that period. The differences between the two movies are quite numerous. The hairstyle of the geishas in “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “A Geisha” are two different portraits. Although the hair is also drawn up in “A Geisha”, there are side and top elevations which are characteristic of the original image.

There were no sexual overtones or obvious sexual messages being delivered to the viewer. No nude scenes were included, or even bare backs shown, even during the time the geishas were dressing up or dressing down. Although the topic of sex was also tackled as Miyoharu had conceded to do sexual favors for Kanzaki, the most baring scene shown was Miyoharu removing the top robe she had, where she had another full-length robe underneath. Not even a focus on her feet was shown while she removed her socks.

When Kusuda made sexual advances on Miyoei, no bare skin was shown, unlike in “Memoirs…” where Sayuri almost got raped and she was stripped half-naked to her waist. There was also no romanticism involved since Miyoei and Miyoharu both did not have love interests in this film. Likewise, the feelings of Kusuda and Kanzaki for Miyoei and Miyoharu respectively were only lustful or sexual thoughts and not of the romantic type. There were no sentimental scenes alluding to romance or emotions pertaining to mutual attraction or love.

The love element in this film is one between two women who cared deeply for each other like family. The eroticism which was also played-up in “Memoirs…” is also absent in this film since the standpoint is also of Eastern origin. A remarkable difference seen in this movie is that while the geisha was portrayed as a docile individual in the more modern version, the 1953 version showed the geisha as one who knew how to fight back and withhold sex as much as possible.

According to history, this is the more accurate image of the geisha because the Japanese government upheld the difference between legalized prostitution and geishas in society. Works Cited Akita, Kimiko. “Orientalism and the Binary of Fact and Fiction in Memoirs of a Geisha”. lass. calumet. purdue. edu Global Media Journal. Fall 2006. Web. 1 June 2010. Mizoguchi, Kenji, dir. A Geisha. Daiei Motion Picture Company. 1953. Film. Marshall, Rob, dir. Memoirs of a Geisha. Columbia Pictures Corporation. 2005. Film.

Updated: Jul 07, 2022
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Movie Review: “Memoirs of a Geisha” vs. “A Geisha”. (2016, Sep 18). Retrieved from

Movie Review:  “Memoirs of a Geisha” vs. “A Geisha” essay
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