“Agony and beauty for us live side by side,” laments Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), the most successful geisha in Gion. You’ll know how she feels. Memoirs of a Geisha, as directed by Chicago‘s Rob Marshall, is beautiful to look at, but when it comes to the dialogue and storytelling, agony just might be the appropriate word. At least when this story was called Showgirls, there were lots of naked breasts.
Memoirs of a Geisha began life as a novel by Arthur Golden, whose meticulous research sucked the reader into the details and nuances of the geisha trade — a world somewhat analogous to the escort business. But those nuances, almost by definition, are the sorts of things that get lost when a 500-page book is adapted into a far shorter screenplay. The most controversial choice made by Sony Pictures, perhaps, was the decision to make the movie’s narrative a dictation by geisha Sayuri (played here by Ziyi Zhang) to an American reporter. Marshall, as he did in Chicago, makes his adaptation an embellished memory inside Sayuri’s head. But why would she remember everyone speaking in choppy English?
It’s hard to tell, at least for the movie’s first half, whether the mostly Chinese actresses are deliberately doing bad Japanese accents or they really do have trouble with the language. At times, some of the characters verge on sounding like Team America‘s Kim Jong-Il puppet. You never think you’ll miss subtitles until a movie like this comes along.
It begins in Japanese, with young Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) being sold into geishahood by her ailing, aged father (Mako). Then the English narration kicks in, with Shizuko Hoshi as the voice of the elderly Sayuri/Chiyo (geishas take on new names), and no further Japanese is heard. Narration is often used in movies based on books as a way of getting some of the author’s prose onscreen and because it’s an easy shortcut for screenwriters. But Robin Swicord (Little Women), who adapted the novel for the screen, doesn’t bother much with Golden’s prose, apparently because it wasn’t clichéd enough. Virtually every line of dialogue in the movie is transparent exposition, and just in case that’s not enough, there’s always a narrator to reinforce the point.
One of a geisha’s primary goals is to land a danna, a man who will primarily own her services and be almost like a husband, though not a companion. Sayuri’s main contenders include war hero Nobu (Koji Yakusho, not nearly scarred enough for the character), whose interest she attracts by going with him to a wrestling show and pretending to be interested. (Note to American women: That’s a really good tactic for winning a dude’s heart.) But her true interest lies with Nobu’s business partner, the Chairman (Ken Watanabe). By Western standards, the potential romance is a little creepy: He was kind to Sayuri when she was a little girl and he was an adult, and she’s been in love ever since. One can’t help but feel that this is a bit like Bob Saget falling for one of the Olsen twins.