Welcome to Hollywood, Japan land of cherry blossoms, paper lanterns, kimonos, pagodas, bamboo, bowing, sumo wrestling and other cliches.
“Memoirs of a Geisha” is a beautiful, glossy soap opera that’s made for Americans who’d rather visit Chinatown than China. When most of a Japanese story like “Memoirs” is shot in Northern California and in English, it doesn’t matter if your actors are Japanese, Chinese or, in one case, Malaysian. If Myrna Loy could pass for Chinese and Shirley MacLaine as Japanese, then women with naturally slanted eyes should have no problem convincing Americans they’re Japanese.
“Memoirs of a Geisha,” from the best-selling novel by Arthur Golden, isn’t much more modern than “The World of Suzie Wong.” In the 1930s, the heroine, whose name changes from Chiyo to Sayuri to Nitta Sayuri, is sold at the age of nine by her fisherman father because her mother is dying.
Her older sister is sold, too, and at first it seems like we’re in for a story about Chiyo (remarkable young actress Suzuka Ohgo) trying to be reunited with her sibling after one has been accepted as a geisha trainee and the other relegated to “the pleasure district.” (Geishas please men, too, but as Chiyo is taught, “We sell our skills, not our bodies.”)
Before long, they plan a joint escape. But when it fails, Chiyo tells us, “I never saw my sister again.”
The real story is of the competition that develops between Chiyo and the house’s resident diva, Hatsumomo (Gong Li), who “earned back her purchase price by the time she was 20.” Initially, the battle is between Hatsumomo and Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), whose virginity was sold for the record price of 10,000 yen. But Mameha adopts Sayuri as a protege while Hatsumomo takes on Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh, as an adult).
A more realistic story begins when a man known only as The Chairman (Ken Watanabe) is kind to little Chiyo on the street. He becomes her life’s goal, and she decides the way to his heart is to become like the geishas he frequents only better.
It’s not until she’s 15 (Ziyi Zhang) that Mameha takes her under her wing and prepares her for the ultimate test of a geisha: “Stop a man in his tracks with one look.”
Mameha tries to interest Nobu (Kuji Yakusho) in Sayuri. The Chairman, being Nobu’s friend and business associate, won’t compete with Nobu for her; but Mameha’s own patron, The Baron (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) might. Mameha’s getting older and he’s looking for a new trophy geisha.
Near the end of Act Two, Sayuri and Hatsumomo have it out in one of the best catfights since “Dynasty,” and Sayuri becomes Nitta Sayuri in honor of the woman (Kaori Momoi) who originally bought her.
Then along comes that nasty old war. The Chairman sends Sayuri to a remote place in the mountains for safety. Americans invade postwar Japan with their money, which Nobu and The Chairman need to rebuild their businesses. Nobu asks Sayuri to help and, after years of working in the rice fields, she becomes re-Geisha-fied. Twist follows twist until Sayuri finds her destiny.
One definition of camp is that all the female actors can be replaced by drag queens and it won’t make any difference. “Memoirs of a Geisha” might have featured B.D. Wong as Mameha and Alec Mapa as Hatsumomo. It’s high camp none of that “Mommie Dearest”/”Baby Jane” stuff but camp nonetheless, which isn’t too surprising when the director is Rob Marshall, the gay man who made “Chicago.”
But “Chicago” was a romp, and “Memoirs” is more of a slog. Marshall gives it enough class that it’s not much fun but not enough to take it entirely seriously except on a melodramatic level.
Gong Li is the only one who goes far enough over the top to bring the film to life, while Michelle Yeoh effectively takes the high road. Ziyi Zhang and the others meet the demands of their roles without raising them out of the soap.
Someone probably conceived of “Memoirs of a Geisha” as a Japanese “Gone with the Wind.” As Scarlett O’Hara would say, “Fiddle dee dee.”
MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA
Director: Rob Marshall
Cast: Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe and Gong Li
Opens today in wide release.
2 hr. 24 min. PG-13