A best-selling novel about a unique Japanese tradition is now a sumptuous motion picture by Rob Marshall, director of the Oscar-winning musical Chicago. Alan Silverman has a look at Memoirs Of A Geisha.
This memoir is the story of a young girl taken from her fishing village home and sold to an okiya - a house for geisha - in the entertainment district of Kyoto in the 1920's. As she grows into a graceful teenager, she becomes the protege of Mameha, the city's most famous geisha.
She learns well and takes her place as a celebrated companion and entertainer.
The film is adapted from the book Memoirs Of A Geisha, first published in 1997 and written by Arthur Golden.
"When I was writing this novel the last thing in the world I imagined was it becoming a movie" he says. I was going to be happy if my mother read the book. I was astonished by the success of it."
The richly detailed novel became an international sensation and Hollywood came calling. Golden admits he was apprehensive about a film's ability to capture the cultural and historical context, but he thinks readers of the book will not be disappointed.
"A movie isn't the same thing as a book. Of course, that's the thing that many people forget," he notes. "They go off to the movie expecting the book; but the book would be a 50-hour movie and you only have two hours, so it has to be condensed. I think it was condensed beautifully; I think it was played expressively. I'm really very impressed with the whole thing."
Zhang Ziyi plays Sayuri, the fictitious geisha whose memoir unfolds in the film. It is Chinese headliner Zhang's first starring role in an English-language production.
"I knew the novel is very popular and people will want to compare the book to the movie," she says. "I felt I have live up to their expectations. So I had to calm myself down, work on my English and learn all the skills to become convincing geisha. It was quite crazy."
Another Asian superstar, Malaysian born Michelle Yeoh co-stars as the mentor to young Sayuri, the consummate geisha Mameha.
"It definitely proved to be a great challenge because we had to do it like it was effortless and they were not simple rituals," she says. "You would think 'oh well, just pick up a cup ... how difficult can that be?' But the way you place your fingers, how you put your hand there and how you lift it up all have their own movements and grace. Ziyi Zhang and I had to learn it over and over again until we mastered it, so even if you just saw a glimpse of it, you know that these two know what they're doing."
Several directors were involved over the years it took to bring Memoirs to the screen. At first, Steven Spielberg planned to make the film, but ultimately the job went to Chicago director Rob Marshall, who says his experience directing plays helped him understand the theatrical world of the geisha.
"It really is this odd combination of beauty and cruelty at the exact same time - what you go through to become a geisha and what the life is like," he explains. "You have to remember that they were really the supermodels of their time. People wanted to be that. Even now, you go to Kyoto and a geisha walks down the street and everybody stops and looks and points. So there's a sense that they are movie stars, supermodels ... there's an allure to it."
As for criticism that the main characters in this Japanese story are played by Chinese actresses, Marshall maintains he found the best women for the roles.
"We have an international, pan-Asian cast. We have Chinese actors, Japanese actors, Malaysian actors," Marshall says. "The most important thing for me was bringing these characters to life. That's my job. With, for instance, the character of Sayuri, the demands were huge because I had to find a great star who could carry a film. She had to be a great actor, a beauty, a great dancer and age from 15 to 35. So it was a huge bill to fill and my wish and hope when I'm casting is when I meet the actor and work with them that they claim the role. There's no question. You feel it; and that's what happened with Ziyi Zhang."
Memoirs Of A Geisha also features Chinese actress Gong Li as Sayuri's rival Hatsumomo; and Japanese screen stars Ken Watanabe (as 'The Chairman') and Kaori Momoi (as the 'mother' who runs the okiya). The musical score composed by John Williams features solo performances by violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.