Memoirs of a Geisha

By Everett Taylor

Behind the powdered face, red lips, and confident eyes that are a Geisha’s is a girl with a hard road behind her. To the outside wall she is the most beautiful, most desired, most elegant girl in all of the hanamachi, but at what price? Memoirs of a Geisha portrays the life of a Geisha in Japan prior to and after World War II, highlighting the life of one fictional but charming character name Chiyo. Her blue eyes that sparkle like light on water make young Chiyo the envy and lustful object of everyone around her. After being sold by her father to an okiya, the house where she trains to become a Geisha, little Chiyo is separated from her sister and forced into slavery, before rising to become the greatest Geisha of her time. At her peak she must battle the effects of war on Japan and what that will mean for her livelihood.

Historically, the movie is centered on old Japanese traditions that are rarely practiced today. A Geisha was not free to live a life of her own, but was obliged to live a life of pleasing others. Contrary to popular belief Geishas were and are not to be confused with prostitutes. They made their earnings as entertainers, in a different sense. One part of becoming a Geisha does have similarities to prostitution; before a maiko or apprentice Geisha can be given the title “Geisha,” a patron must purchase her mizuage, or the right to deflower her. This practice inducts a Geisha, and she is given a new name. Chiyo would now be known as Sayuri.

Geishas spend hours training, learning to dance, sing, play instruments and the skills of being delightful in conversation. Once a Geisha builds a reputation as a wonderful and elegant Geisha to have as company, her life could be exciting and great, but still, as shown in the movie, empty of love and freedom of choice. Geishas could not fall in love, although many did, and consummation of their loves would make them no longer as valuable or desired. Geishas were none other than artists at their craft, but after World War II, Geishas were no longer as prominent as Japan went through much hardship and reform. As shown in the movie, the surviving Geishas had to change their practices to cater to American suitors. “These American men have me singing Frank Sinatra,” says Pumpkin, a Geisha in the film; no longer would their practices be the same.

The characters in this movie are all fictional, but similar stories of course occurred. Very accurate however was the vision of Japan and its citizens in peril after the effects of the war. In essence the war reshaped the Geisha ideal and turned it into another past mystery of the Orient. Even though today there are still Geishas, they are not subjected to the same rules and strictness in love; no longer can their innocence be sold for their freedom or rights.

Keeping in mind that all of the characters are in fact fictional, one can analyze these characters’ relation to real life and their support of the plot and story line throughout the movie. Chiyo, our young maiko, was born impoverished, but earned the chance to free herself which she did. These girls were treated as indentured servants or slaves, and were usually never able to repay their debts to their okiya, or houses, and were made to work almost life sentences. However Chiyo made enough money to free herself with the help of Mameha, a renowned Geisha, who trained Chiyo to make history with the selling of her mizuage for 15,000 yen, breaking the record price ever paid for a mizuage, 10,000 yen to Mameha. Hatsumomo, a jealous rival of Chiyo’s, tries her hardest to ruin Chiyo’s reputation by spreading rumors about her to numerous men. Hatsumomo could not stand the thought of no longer being the most desired Geisha. Chiyo, although kind and gentle, could not help but fear that Hatsumomo with all her bitterness was only a glimpse of the future that Chiyo would succumb to.

The life of a Geisha in Japan was filled with hard work and duties before the glamorous night lives they led. Starting at young ages, Geishas worked for their okiyas, cleaning and cooking, doing many chores. When the time came, if they were lucky enough, they would go to school to train as Geisha. These girls learned to dance and sing, be skilled in artistry, learn to use fans and to play instruments; Geisha is the most disciplined art form in my opinion. Painters may learn to paint for years, but their works are on canvas, whereas a Geisha’s works, perfected over a lifetime, are displayed in her charm.

The villages in Japan are crowded; the houses very close together with many inhabitants. As in the movie, the cities were divided into districts, with the red light district being the infamous pleasure district. The people were hard working, and if not rich from business, doing anything they could to keep food on their tables. It is not told for certain in the movie why Chiyo and her sister are sold by their father, but with a dying mother and a family in desperate times, it was not uncommon for this to occur. Even today in many eastern countries girls are sold by their families to become workers to slaves. An example reads: “She lost her virginity six months ago when her mother sold her honor to a man 41 years older than her. Her mother did not think twice when offered US $200, which, according to her, was enough to buy food for her family for two week.” This example describes what the effect of war will do to a family, and what the war will do to the children. Chiyo, was bought by a house in the pleasure district to work as a prostitute, a more realistic and harsh reality for girls today and also in those days if they were sold by their families.

Prior to watching this film for the first time when I was 13 years old, I did not even have the slightest clue as to what a Geisha was. After watching this film, one falls in love with the beauty and grace that is typical of a Geisha. A Geisha must be determined, obedient, and ready to give her life to something beyond her control. The glamour behind the make-up is not all it looks to be, only a façade. One fact I found in research, not presented in the movie, is that a maiko will stain her teeth black for one month before she is ready to become a full Geisha; it seems odd to us in our time that something like tooth discoloration could be attractive.

In fact, Geishas are the epitome of elegance in their time, like top models of modern day. Their beautiful silk kimonos are worth more than the prices their okasans, or adopters, paid for the maikos themselves. Their tall okobo wooden shoes keep the artistic tapestry of the kimonos from every touching the ground, and keeping the Geishas poised. The audience marvels at the similarities between the Geishas in this movie and the porcelain dolls western children play with when they are young, Every outfit must be precise, and none of the Geishas aimed to show any flesh, except, on rare occasion, when a slip of the skin on their wrist is shown to please a client. They were skilled beyond and in so many different ways than an entertainer of today and it’s difficult to match any American custom to the style of such woman. Geishas are as unique and mysterious as the land they come from, with more secrets than westerns will ever know. “A Geisha creates another secret world, a place only of beauty.”

As delicate as the lotus flower are the traditions of the Geisha. Precise in every measure, a Geisha creates a path for herself; a path out of poverty and into society; she can become great. Even in times of strife, Geishas must keep their poise and grace even though “these are not the memoirs of an empress or of a queen.”