This golden girl is first named Chiyo. Her fisherman father has sold her to an okiya, where she must learn to be a lady. A special sort of lady: a geisha, one of “wives of nightfall” who for centuries have entertained Japanese gentlemen with delicacy, wit and a mastery of such arts as flower arranging, calligraphy, singing, dancing and playing the three-stringed shamisen.
At 15, Chiyo (Ziyi Zhang) has these graces only in embryo; but a famous geisha, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), sees how they might flower. She begins the girl’s education sternly. “That is a perfect bow. For a pig farmer.” “Rise. Not like a horse.” And slowly the eager student with the”watery” gray eyes grows into a captivating woman known as Nitta Sayuri. “Now walk,” says mameha. “You are a magnificent geisha”—-beguiling enough, at least, to attract the attention of the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), a powerful man who Sayuri has adored since she was a little girl. Sayuri rise doesn’t suit Hatsumomo’s ego. The reigning bitch-goddes of the okiya accurately sees Sayuri”s promise as a threat. With magnificent hatred, she spits a warning at the girl: “I will destroy you.”
Memoirs of a geisha is the Cinderella story, with Sayuri as the young heroine, Mameha as the fairy godmother, Hatsumomo as the evil stepmother and the Chairman as Sayuri’s prince charming.
“The very word geisha means artist,” Mameha tells her star pupil. “And to be a geisha is to be judged as a living work of art.” That definition suits the film as well. Geisha is a geisha: a living work of art that elegantly entertains us for a few hours, then vanishes into the night, taking our beguiled hearts with it.
Text by Desa Philadelphia/Los Angeles
Drawing by abbysoekarno, 2011