With Memories of a Geisha, get ready to take a journey into the traditions and stories of a world very distant from ours, both in geographical and cultural terms.
And why are we making this trip today? Because on September 27, 1997, so not too long ago, Arthur Golden’s novel Geisha was released, from which the famous (and splendid, but also controversial) film Memoirs of a Geisha was born.
Put on your best kimono, maybe sip some matcha tea, and let this story begin. We will find out together why Sayuri is not a character that could come from Disney.
Memoirs of a Geisha: plot of the book
Chiyo’s difficult childhood
The story begins in 1929 in Japan, in a small fishing village. Chiyo and her sister Satsu are sold by their father and sent to Kyoto, in the Gion district. One finds herself in an okiya (house of the geisha) belonging to Madame Nitta who calls herself “Mother” as is the tradition of the okiya, the other in a brothel. Chiyo is nine years old and the beauty of her eyes arouses the jealousy of the house’s chief geisha, Hatsumomo, who fears that the little fisherwoman will become more influential than her.
Chiyo befriends the young Pumpkin, a servant who works in the okiya. Hatsumomo, whose jealousy grows over time, tries to make Chiyo’s life hell. The debt that little Chiyo owes to Mrs. Nitta increases more and more, until it reaches a figure so high that she is assured that she will be condemned to pay it back for life.
Chiyo eventually finds her sister Satsu. The two girls devise a plan to escape. Unfortunately, during her escape, Chiyo falls off a roof. She will never see her sister again. Medical bills further add to Chiyo’s debt. Nitta decides to take her apprenticeship lessons away from her to become a geisha, definitively condemning her to a life of servitude.
Dejected, she is approached by Iwamura Ken, president of a large electrical company. He offers her an ice cream, his handkerchief and some coins. Extremely touched by this act of kindness and enraptured by the beauty and grace of the two geishas who accompany him, Chiyo vows to become a geisha too and find the man everyone calls “the President.” The thought of love for him will guide her in every step and will give her the strength and courage to endure all the trials that will come her way.
From Chiyo to geisha Sayuri
Shortly after this event, Mameha, one of Kyoto’s best geishas, manages to persuade Ms. Nitta to adopt Chiyo by promising to repay her debt in a very short time. Fortunately, and convinced that the challenge that Mameha poses is insurmountable, Nitta accepts. Having become Mameha’s “little sister”, Chiyo continues her apprenticeship as a geisha.
She gradually becomes one of the most famous geishas of the 20th century with the name of Sayuri. Also, she learns all the artistic and social techniques that a geisha must master: the art of dance, of music, of wearing a kimono, of putting on make-up and styling her hair, of preparing and serving tea. She especially she manages, in a world of rivalry, to be appreciated by men. But Hatsumomo’s jealousy burns inside her and he uses her influence to ruin Sayuri’s reputation.
Mameha decides to come up with a plan to sell Sayuri’s mizuage (her virginity) at an unprecedented price. Her goal is for Sayuri to attract Nobu Toshikazu, who is the co-director of the President’s company, so much so that he wants to buy her mizuage. But this plan poses a problem for Sayuri, because this blocks all chances of ending her days with the President.
Another aggravating fact is that the President doesn’t seem to recognize her since their first meeting. Despite everything, her mizuage ends up being sold at a record price: Sayuri repays all her debts but at the expense of Pumpkin, from whom she takes the place that she had so longed for in the okyia. However, Sayuri’s glory is not going to last long. The Second World War forced her to leave the city to take refuge, thanks to her Nobu, in a village where she would have remained for 4 years, making kimonos.
The end of the war and of the story
At the end of the war, Sayuri is sought out by Nobu who begs her to return to Gion, to entertain the minister and deputy Sato, the only person who can revive the President’s business, which was partially destroyed during the war. He also informs her that Sato wants to become her danna (a man who fully maintains a Geisha). She reluctantly agrees, as she feels indebted to Nobu.
Back in Gion, she is reunited with Mameha and Pumpkin. During a trip to the Amami Islands, Sayuri devises a plan to voluntarily humble herself in the eyes of Nobu so to keep all her chances with the President. She then asks for the help of Pumpkin who was to lure Nobu to a predetermined place and time. But the latter, still angry with Sayuri because she had “stolen” her okiya, decides to fool her trust by letting the President in. A humiliated Sayuri loses all hope of winning the President’s love.
Three days after her return from the Amami Islands, saddened and condemned to stay all her life with Nobu, with whom she has an appointment in a tea house, not without surprise she gets up and sees that in Nobu’s presence has been replaced by that of the President. The man then reveals her the whole story: he had immediately recognized in Sayuri the young Chiyo whom he had consoled one day, and it was him who had asked Mameha to take her out of the okiya, many years before. He also tells her that he knows what Sayuri’s real intentions were towards the minister.
Sayuri finally confesses her love for him, hidden for more than 15 years. The story ends with her reflection on her life in New York and on the people important to her.
The controversies of the book and the film
True anthropological work, the book describes in detail what a geisha is and denounces some prejudices about this profession. In fact, often compared to prostitution, the geisha profession is actually more like an art.
Author Arthur Golden was very inspired by his conversations with Mineko Iwasaki, a geisha from Kyoto who retired from the profession at the age of 29 and who has long told him about her experience. Dissatisfied with the freedoms that the author allowed himself in his novel (the alleged ritual auction of the virginity of the heroine in particular), Mineko Iwasaki subsequently decided to write her autobiography, My Life as a Geisha, in order to restore the truth about the traditional lifestyle of the geishas.
The book Memoirs of a Geisha tried to recreate as faithfully as possible the world in which the geishas lived, as well as the customs of the Japanese society of the time. For this, among other things, it has kept some Japanese terms that are not translatable because in reality they have no equivalent in other languages.
Rob Marshall’s 2005 film, very faithful to the story, also received some criticism. Among the actors who play in the film only three are Japanese, while the female performers are Chinese citizens.
Some critics were very annoyed that the main female figures in the film were not played by actresses of Japanese nationality, and that in particular the central role was played by a Chinese actress. In China, the choice of ethnic Chinese interpreters has caused a lot of turmoil in the online community, where many users have been unhappy because (mistakenly) they have seen Chinese compatriots play “prostitutes”.
Why we like Memoirs of a Geisha
Here you’ll find the reasons why we love the novel:
- Immersion in another world and the discovery of a part of Japanese culture.
- We share Sayuri’s life: she tells us, in first person, her life and we observe absolutely everything through her point of view. We are able to share her thoughts, her secrets and her hopes.
- A beautiful and surprising love story: Japanese customs are very different from ours and this novel teaches us to break down some prejudices. That related to the age difference between Sayuri and the President for example.
- Rich characters: there are many interesting, complex characters who make us cheer for one or the other. You can feel affection for the President as well as for Mameha. Hatsumomo is hated as expected, even if deep down she is an eminently tragic being. Pumpkin inspires compassion. Nobu has a more difficult position but we appreciate him for who he is despite everything, especially with Sayuri.
- The okiya. It is like entering a parallel universe made up of personal relationships, emotions and power dynamics, all female. They remind us of Margaret Atwood’s handmaids.
In conclusion, apart from the fact that it tells a beautiful story, this novel is an opportunity to dive into a totally unknown world. It is a reading outside of many things we know. You can feel the imprint of this very different culture, follow Sayuri’s turbulent life, marked by great joys and tragedies. Reading (or even watching the film) Memoirs of a Geisha, one has the impression of learning, of enriching oneself, getting lost in its pages or images.
And if now, intrigued by this article, you want to read the novel, we recommend the sublime music of the homonymous film written and directed by John Williams as a background!