When Arthur Golden's book Memoirs of a Geisha hit the shelves in 1997 it quickly became a bestseller. Not surprisingly the book generated controversy in some quarters. It was a first person narrative told from the perspective of a woman who was sold as a child to a geisha house in the late 1920s and her life in that world. Yet it was written by a white American male. It didn't help that Mineko Iwasaki, a former postwar geisha who Golden interviewed extensively for the book, sued him for revealing her involvement in creating the book despite promises not to, and what she claimed were inaccuracies.
Now, some eight years later, the movie version has hit the theatres. Its had a long genesis, initial preproduction work beginning back in 1999. Steven Spielberg was the first of several potential directors, with production finally getting underway with director Rob Marshall. Spielberg is executive producer. The initial critical response has been largely negative. Not surprisingly a lot of reviewers found it to have a problem I long suspected, that of language. Its no surprise the film is in English given that its an 85 million buck American production. But the choice of actresses greatly complicated things. The role of Sayuri is played by Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi, and her costars are Chinese actress Gong Li and Malaysian-Chinese actress Michelle Yeoh. Only Yeoh has extensive experience with English, and the result is apparently often stilted dialogue, especially with Zhang Ziyi struggling with her first English role. Its too bad she didn't have a chance to debut in English in a situation where her unfamiliarity with the language would be less of a problem. Ironically this problem would all but certainly have turned up if Japanese actresses had taken those roles, although Youki Kudoh, who plays a supporting role in this film, would have made an excellent choice given her English language acting experience.
Casting non Japanese as geisha has proven controversial in many quarters, but was probably inevitable. Unfortunately there are no Japanese actresses with the same kind of American name recognition as the starring trio. Unfortunately marketability is going to be the first and foremost concern with a movie like this. Some of the other changes, such as heavily toning down the traditional white geisha makeup and hairdos because of concerns they would turn off American viewers, are less easy to understand. The viewer is already being presented with an unfamiliar world. In other words one gets the impression that the filmmakers don't trust their audiences enough.
But in the end the reviews seem to indicate the biggest problem with the film is that its simply poorly written. Flaws in setting and language can be overlooked if the story overall works, but that doesn't seem to be the case with this film. It sounds like the hope was that the exotic setting would carry the film past its flaws, but it doesn't seem to have worked.
I really hadn't planned on seeing this film in the theatres anyways, but the reviews haven't helped. I think I'll wait until it appears on the cable movie channels, and maybe sit and watch with the sound off just to check out the costumes and sets.