To the astonishment of absolutely no one who pays attention to the things people can get infuriated about, the film adaptation of Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha has inspired controversy. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) cast “name” actors of Chinese descent as Japanese characters in three of the film’s key female roles, leading to cries of protest from both Chinese and Japanese observers. And while one could say that these complaints missed the glass-half-full spin on the story'that Hollywood has progressed to the point where an Asian actress of any national descent could be considered a “nameâ€'you can still see the point.
I’m guessing, however, that these protesters will not recognize how the casting controversy is part of a larger issue with Marshall’s adaptation. Golden’s novel'perhaps even to a fault'focused on the day-to-day minutiae that made the world of the geishas so uniquely compelling. But the film hones in on the romance and the power struggles that make for bigger, more dramatic cinema. It’s not just the actresses who lack a distinctively Japanese flavor, it’s the film as a whole.
And yet Marshall still manages to craft a visually spectacular epic, beginning with the prologue set in the seaside fishing village where 9-year-old Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) and her sister are essentially sold into indentured servitude by their father in early 1930s Japan. They’re spirited away to Gion, a geisha district near Kyoto and delivered separately to “okiya,” or geisha-houses. As young Chiyo learns, it’s not the same as a brothel'experienced geisha, like her house’s imperious Hatsumomo (Gong Li), are respected companions and performers with no sexual obligations. But Chiyo’s chances for becoming a geisha seem slim until, as a teenager renamed Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang), she is taken under the wing of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) and taught the ancient art.
Or at least that’s the impression I get. Marshall does devote one key montage sequence to Sayuri’s apprenticeship, an efficient piece of filmmaking that conveys many of the skills required of a top geisha. But ultimately, it’s a sliver of the story, and screenwriters Robin Swicord and Doug Wright have too many other key points to hit. There’s the rivalry between Hatsumomo and Sayuri, Sayuri’s adoration-from-afar of a kindly man known only as The Chairman (Ken Watanabe), a bidding war for Sayuri’s virginity, and the impact of World War II on the geishas’ lifestyle. It’s an unenviable task, packing so much content into the length of a feature film, but Memoirs of a Geisha ends up falling into the trap of so many literary adaptations, from Shakespeare to Harry Potter: keeping the text, but losing the texture.
That feels true not just of the nuances of geisha life but of the characters and their relationships as well. Most of the conflicts feel Westernized for our protection'the clashes between Hatsumomo and Sayuri sacrifice gamesmanship for claws-out chick warfare, and Sayuri’s rise is presented less as a triumph over overwhelming odds than the inevitable success of a feisty go-getter. The romantic tension between Sayuri and The Chairman becomes just the most glaring example of a tale that becomes less about its particular time and place than “Jane Austen: Mysterious East Edition.
And yet, for all its flaws, Memoirs of a Geisha is still often so dazzling to behold that it’s transfixing. The colors in John Myhre’s production design are bold and arresting, as are the spectacular kimono created by Colleen Atwood. Marshall has a keen eye for individual shots of his characters in nature'a spring garden party, a forest of bamboo framing a driveway'though perhaps those images seem more striking because Memoirs’ Gion looks so much like a back-lot creation. The same knack for impressive staging that Marshall brought to Chicago makes Memoirs too visually interesting to be tedious.
Ultimately, though, the story Marshall is directing just as easily couldhave been set in the native lands of its non-Japanese stars. Everyone talks and behaves the way we would expect them to talk and behave in any big Hollywood period spectacle, not necessarily the way people would talk and behave in 1930s Kyoto. Frightened perhaps of making a movie that was “too Japanese,” Marshall and company have made something lovely but indistinct: Memoirs of an Ambitious Orphan Living Somewhere in the 20th Century.