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Memoirs of a Geisha (film)

Memoirs of a Geisha
File:Memoirs of a Geisha Poster.jpg
Teaser poster
Directed by Rob Marshall
Produced by Lucy Fisher
Douglas Wick
Steven Spielberg
Written by Robin Swicord
Based on Memoirs of a Geisha 
by Arthur Golden
Starring Zhang Ziyi
Ken Watanabe
Gong Li
Michelle Yeoh
Youki Kudoh
Suzuka Ohgo
Music by John Williams
Cinematography Dion Beebe
Edited by Pietro Scalia
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Buena Vista International (United Kingdom)
Release dates
  • November 29, 2005 (2005-11-29) (Tokyo premiere)
  • December 9, 2005 (2005-12-09) (United States)
Running time
145 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $85 million
Box office $162,242,962

Memoirs of a Geisha is a 2005 American epic film adaptation of the novel of the same name, produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment and Spyglass Entertainment and by Douglas Wick's Red Wagon Productions. The picture was directed by Rob Marshall and was released in the United States on December 9, 2005 by Columbia Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures. DreamWorks was given studio credit only. It stars Zhang Ziyi, Ken Watanabe, Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh, Youki Kudoh, and Suzuka Ohgo. Production took place in southern and northern California and in several locations in Kyoto, including the Kiyomizu temple and the Fushimi Inari shrine.

Memoirs of a Geisha tells the story of a young girl, Chiyo Sakamoto, who is sold by her family to an okiya, a geisha house. Her new family then sends her off to school to become a geisha. This movie is mainly about older Chiyo and her struggle as a geisha to find love, in the process making a lot of enemies. The film was nominated for and won numerous awards, including nominations for six Academy Awards, and eventually won three: Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.

The Japanese release of the film was titled Sayuri, the titular character's geisha name.


The film tells the story of Chiyo Sakamoto, a poor Japanese girl who has been sold along with her older sister Satsu into a life of servitude by her parents. Chiyo is taken in by the proprietress of a geisha house, Mother, but Satsu is rejected and is sold to another house in the "pleasure district" of the Hanamachi. At the okiya, she meets another young girl named Pumpkin, and also has numerous unpleasant run-ins with the okiya's senior geisha Hatsumomo.

Chiyo conspires with Satsu to run from their new lives. She returns to the okiya and discovers Hatsumomo in the shed having sex with her boyfriend, Koichi. Koichi runs away and Hatsumomo accuses Chiyo for stealing, but Chiyo then informs Mother of what she saw in the shed and Hatsumomo is banned from seeing Koichi. On the night of their planned escape, Chiyo falls off the rooftop and is injured. Mother finds out about Chiyo's attempt, therefore she stops paying for Chiyo's geisha training, and informs her that her parents are dead. Chiyo never sees Satsu again. Chiyo is then demoted to working as a slave to pay off her debts to Mother.

One day, the young Chiyo is noticed by the Chairman and his geisha companions. He then buys her an iced sorbet and gives her his handkerchief with some money in it. Inspired by his act of kindness, Chiyo resolves to become a geisha so that she may one day become a part of the Chairman's life.

Several years later, Chiyo is taken under the wing of Mameha, one of Kyoto's most successful geisha. Under Mameha's tutelage, Chiyo becomes a maiko and then takes the name of Sayuri. Hatsumomo becomes Sayuri's rival and seeks to destroy her. Sayuri reunites with the Chairman and longs to catch his attention. Sayuri grows in popularity and Hatsumomo spreads lies and rumors to ruin Sayuri's reputation. Meanwhile, Mameha starts a bidding war for Sayuri's mizuage, which will make her a full geisha. Sayuri gets named the lead dancer for a popular performance, where she catches the attention of bidders, including the Baron (Mameha's danna). The Baron invites Sayuri to his house for a party. When the Baron shows a kimono to Sayuri, he undresses her in order to "take a look". Sayuri returns to Kyoto where Mameha learns of the assault and fears that Sayuri is now worthless, despite Sayuri saying she isn't.

That evening, Sayuri wins the bidding with fifteen thousand yen. Mother, seeing Sayuri as a financial opportunity names her as her adopted daughter and heiress to the okiya. This crushes Pumpkin, who was hoping that she would get adopted and Hatsumomo is enraged when Mother informs that Hatsumomo is more like a prostitute. Mameha later tells Sayuri that the bid was down to two people, Dr. Crab and the Baron. Mameha let it go to Dr. Crab because of her romantic feelings for the Baron, despite his bid being even higher. When returning home from the mizuage ceremony, Sayuri finds Hatsumomo in her room, where she has found the Chairman's handkerchief and they fight. During the fight, a gas lighter ignites a fire and the okiya is partially destroyed. Hatsumomo leaves the okiya for good.

Sayuri's prosperous life is cut short by the outbreak of World War II. Sayuri and Mameha are separated, with Sayuri going to the hills to work for a kimono maker. After the war, Sayuri is reunited with Mameha, and they become geisha once more to impress an American Colonel that is going into business with Nobu and the Chairman. Sayuri meets back up with Pumpkin, who is now a flirty escort. Sayuri goes on a trip with Nobu, the Chairman, Pumpkin and the Americans to the Amami Islands.

At Amami, the Colonel propositions Sayuri, but is rejected. Nobu witnesses the incident and confronts Sayuri. He finally confesses his feelings that he wants to become her danna. Sayuri is distraught and devises a plan to humiliate herself with the Colonel in front of Nobu. But because of her secret resentment of Sayuri, Pumpkin brings the Chairman instead, knowing that it would devastate Sayuri.

A few days later, after returning to Gion, Sayuri receives a call to go to the teahouse. While waiting, Sayuri expects Nobu to arrive, but instead the Chairman comes where he finally reveals to her that he knows she is Chiyo. He tells her that Nobu had learned about the affair and ceased his desire to be her danna. He also reveals that he was responsible for sending Mameha to her so that she could fulfill her dreams of becoming a geisha. Sayuri finally reveals her love to the Chairman, which she has been harbouring for over twenty years. The film ends with their loving embrace and kiss and a stroll through a beautiful Japanese garden.




Producer Steven Spielberg had been scheduled to direct Memoirs of a Geisha as the follow-up to Saving Private Ryan. However fellow DreamWorks executive David Geffen had tried to persuade him not to take on the project as he said, "I don't think it's good enough for him". Whether or not he was dissuaded from the project, he went on to direct A.I. Artificial Intelligence instead.[1] Prior to Spielberg's involvement, the film was planned to be shot in Japan and with the Japanese language.[2]

The three leading non-Japanese actresses, including Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, and Michelle Yeoh, were put through "geisha boot camp" before production commenced, during which they were trained in traditional geisha practices of musicianship, dance, and tea ceremony.


File:Fushimi Inari shrine.jpg
The orange gateways at the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto, used in a scene wherein a young Chiyo runs through them

Production of the film took place from September 29, 2004 to January 31, 2005. It was decided by the producers that contemporary Japan looked much too modern to film a story which took place in the 1920s and '30s and it would be more cost-effective to create sets for the film on soundstages and locations in the United States, primarily in California. The majority of the film was shot on a large set built on a ranch in Thousand Oaks, California which was a detailed recreation of an early twentieth-century geisha district in Kyoto, Japan. Most interior scenes were filmed in Culver City, California at the Sony Pictures Studios lot. Other locations in California included San Francisco, Moss Beach, Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge, Sacramento, Yamashiro's Restaurant in Hollywood, the Japanese Gardens at the Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, Hakone Gardens in Saratoga, and Downtown Los Angeles at the Belasco Theater on Hill Street. Towards the end of production, some scenes were shot in Kyoto, Japan, including the Fushimi Inari Taisha the head shrine of Inari, located in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto.


In post-production, one of the tasks of the sound editors was to improve upon the English pronunciation of the international cast. This sometimes involved piecing together different clips of dialogue from other segments of the film to form new syllables from the film's actors, some of whom spoke partially phonetic English when they performed their roles on-set. The achievement of the sound editors earned them an Academy Award nomination for Best Achievement in Sound Editing.


In the Western hemisphere, the film received mixed reviews. In China and Japan, responses were sometimes very negative due to various controversies that arose from the film's casting and its relationship to history.

Western box office and reviews

The British reviews for Memoirs of a Geisha were generally mixed. The New Statesman criticized Memoirs of a Geisha‍ '​s plot, saying that after Hatsumomo leaves, "the plot loses what little momentum it had and breaks down into one pretty visual after another" and says that the film version "abandons the original's scholarly mien to reveal the soap opera bubbling below".[3] The Journal praised Zhang Ziyi, saying that she "exudes a heartbreaking innocence and vulnerablity" but said "too much of the character's yearning and despair is concealed behind the mask of white powder and rouge".[4] London's The Evening Standard compared Memoirs of a Geisha to Cinderella and praised Gong Li, saying that "Li may be playing the loser of the piece but she saves this film" and Gong "endows Hatsumomo with genuine mystery".[5] Eighteen days later, The Evening Standard put Memoirs of a Geisha on its Top Ten Films list.[6] Glasgow's Daily Record praised the film, saying the "geisha world is drawn with such intimate detail that it seems timeless until the war, and with it the modern world comes crashing in".[7]

In the United States, the film managed $57 million during its box office run. The film peaked at 1,654 screens,[citation needed] facing off against King Kong, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Fun with Dick and Jane. During its first week in limited release, the film screening in only eight theaters tallied up an $85,313 per theater average which made it second in highest per theater averages behind Brokeback Mountain for 2005.[citation needed] International gross reached $158 million.[8]

Overall, the American reviews were mixed. Illinois' Daily Herald said that the "[s]trong acting, meticulously created sets, beautiful visuals, and a compelling story of a celebrity who can't have the one thing she really wants make Geisha memorable".[9] The Washington Times called the film "a sumptuously faithful and evocative adaption" while adding that "[c]ontrasting dialects may remain a minor nuisance for some spectators, but the movie can presumably count on the pictorial curiosity of readers who enjoyed Mr. Golden's sense of immersion, both harrowing and [a]esthetic, in the culture of a geisha upbringing in the years that culminated in World War II".[10]

The film scored a 35% "Rotten" rating on Rotten Tomatoes; the consensus stated "Less nuanced than its source material, Memoirs of a Geisha may be a lavish production, but it still carries the simplistic air of a soap opera."[11] On Metacritic, the film was given a 54/100 meaning "mixed or average review."[12]

Casting controversy

Controversy arose during casting of the film when some of the most prominent roles, including those of the geisha Sayuri, Hatsumomo and Mameha, did not go to Japanese actresses. Zhang Ziyi (Sayuri) and Gong Li (Hatsumomo) are both Chinese, whereas Michelle Yeoh (Mameha) is an ethnic Chinese from Malaysia. More notable is the fact that all three were already prominent fixtures in Chinese cinema.

The film-makers defended the decision, however, and attributed "acting ability and star power" as their main priorities in casting the roles and director Rob Marshall noted examples such as Irish-Mexican actor Anthony Quinn being cast as a Greek man in Zorba the Greek.[13]

Opinion in the Asian community was mixed. To some Chinese, the casting was offensive because they mistook geisha for prostitutes, and because it revived memories of wartime Japanese atrocities.[citation needed] The Chinese government canceled the film's release there because of such connections, and a website denounced star Zhang Ziyi as an "embarrassment to China."[14] This was exacerbated by the word "geigi" (芸妓?), a Japanese name for geisha used in the Kantō region, which includes Tokyo. The second character () could sometimes mean "prostitute" in Japanese language, though it actually had a variety of meanings and there was a clear distinction between geisha and prostitutes which were called "Yūjo" (遊女?). The character 妓 only means "prostitute" in Chinese, and the correct translation into Chinese of the word "geisha" is 艺伎 (traditional Chinese: 藝伎), which does not use it. Some Japanese have expressed offense that people of their own nationality had not gotten the roles. Other Asians defended the casting, including the film's main Japanese star Ken Watanabe who said that "talent is more important than nationality."[15]

In defense of the film, Zhang spoke:

Film critic Roger Ebert pointed out that the film was made by a Japanese-owned company, and that Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi outgross any Japanese actress even in the Japanese box office.[17]

Chinese responses

The film received some hostile responses in Mainland China, including its banning by the People's Republic of China. Relations between Japan and Mainland China were particularly tense due to two main factors: Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a number of visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors all Japan's war dead, including some who were convicted war criminals, which was denounced by China's foreign ministry as honoring them; and China helped to ensure Japan did not receive a seat on the UN Security Council.[18] Writer Hong Ying argued that "Art should be above national politics".[19] Nevertheless, the release of Memoirs of a Geisha into this politically charged situation added to cultural conflict within and between China and Japan.

The film was originally scheduled to be shown in cinemas in the People's Republic of China on February 9, 2006. The Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television decided to ban the film on February 1, 2006, considering the film as "too sensitive". In doing so, it overturned a November decision to approve the film for screening.[20]

The film is set in Japan during World War II, when the Second Sino-Japanese War was taking place. During this time, Japan captured and forced Chinese women as "comfort women" for their men.[21] Controversy arose in China from an apparent confusion of equating geisha with prostitution, and thus the connection with, and reminder of, comfort women being used in Japan at that time.

Newspaper sources, such as the Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post and the Shanghai Youth Daily, quoted the fears that the film may be banned by censors; there were concerns that the casting of Chinese actresses as geishas could rouse anti-Japan sentiment and stir up feelings over Japanese wartime actions in China, especially the use of Chinese women as forced sex workers.[22][23]

Awards and nominations

Academy Awards[24]

Golden Globe

National Board of Review

  • Won: Best Supporting Actress (Gong Li)

Satellite Awards

  • Won: Outstanding Screenplay, Adapted (Robin Swicord)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Motion Picture, Drama
  • Nominated: Outstanding Director (Rob Marshall)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama (Zhang Ziyi)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Actress in a Supporting Role, Drama (Gong Li)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Art Direction & Production Design (John Myhre)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Cinematography (Dion Beebe)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Costume Design (Colleen Atwood)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Original Score (John Williams)

BAFTA Awards

  • Won: The Anthony Asquith Award for Achievement in Film Music (John Williams)
  • Won: Cinematography (Dion Beebe)
  • Won: Costume Design (Colleen Atwood)
  • Nominated: Best Actress in a Leading Role (Zhang Ziyi)
  • Nominated: Production design
  • Nominated: Make Up and Hair

Screen Actors Guild Awards

  • Nominated: Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role (Zhang Ziyi)

NAACP Image Awards

  • Nominated: Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture (Zhang Ziyi)

Soundtrack album

Memoirs of a Geisha OST
Soundtrack album by John Williams
Released November 22, 2005
Genre Soundtrack
Length 61:02
Label Sony Classical

The Memoirs of a Geisha official soundtrack featured Yo-Yo Ma performing the cello solos, as well as Itzhak Perlman performing the violin solos. The music was composed and conducted by John Williams, who won his fourth Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score.

  1. "Sayuri's Theme" – 1:31
  2. "The Journey to the Hanamachi" – 4:06
  3. "Going to School" – 2:42
  4. "Brush on Silk" – 2:31
  5. "Chiyo's Prayer" – 3:36
  6. "Becoming a Geisha" – 4:32
  7. "Finding Satsu" – 3:44
  8. "The Chairman's Waltz" – 2:39
  9. "The Rooftops of the Hanamachi" – 3:49
  10. "The Garden Meeting" – 2:44
  11. "Dr. Crab's Prize" – 2:18
  12. "Destiny's Path" – 3:20
  13. "A New Name... A New Life" – 3:33
  14. "The Fire Scene and the Coming of War" – 6:48
  15. "As the Water..." – 2:01
  16. "Confluence" – 3:42
  17. "A Dream Discarded" – 2:00
  18. "Chairman's Waltz" - 2:39
  19. "Sayuri's Theme and End Credits" – 5:06


  1. ^ Interview with Spielberg, Stephen J. Dubner, Steven Spielberg Interviews, ISBN 1-57806-113-X
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ Lyttle, John. "The Eastern Affront: This Depiction of Oppression Is Decorously Polite." New Statesman Jan. 16, 2006: 47.
  4. ^ "Memoirs of a Geisha". The Journal (Newcastle, England) Jan. 13, 2006: 20.
  5. ^ "Dazzled by the Tricks of an Exotic Trade." The Evening Standard (London, England) Jan. 12, 2006: 34.
  6. ^ "Critic's Choice; Top Ten Films." The Evening Standard (London, England) Jan. 30, 2006: 40.
  7. ^ "GLAD TO BE GEISHA; Beautifully Shot and Brilliantly Acted, This Is an Oscar Favourite MEMOIRS OF A GEISH A ***** 12A." Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland) Jan. 13, 2006: 46.
  8. ^ "Memoirs of a Geisha". The Numbers: Box Office Data. Retrieved February 25, 2007. 
  9. ^ Defiglio, Pam. "Memorable Epic Takes a Beautiful Look Inside a Mysterious World". Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL) Dec. 16, 2005: 48.
  10. ^ "'Geisha' Rises to Exotic Best; Faithful Book Adaptation Portrays Rivalry of Women." The Washington Times Dec. 16, 2005: D08.
  11. ^ "Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved February 25, 2007. 
  12. ^ "Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)". Metacritic. Retrieved April 15, 2007. 
  13. ^ "Geisha film-makers defend casting". BBC News. December 8, 2005. Retrieved May 12, 2010. 
  14. ^ "China cancels release of 'Memoirs of a Geisha'". USA Today. February 1, 2006. Retrieved May 12, 2010. 
  15. ^ "Watanabe defends casting in 'Geisha' -". [dead link]
  16. ^ "Zhang Ziyi at - Interview magazine July 2006". Retrieved 2012-10-24. 
  17. ^ "Memoirs of a Geisha". Chicago Sun-Times. 
  18. ^ Britannica Online Encyclopaedia/China's Relations with Its Neighbours/Year in Review 2005>
  19. ^ CHINA:'Memoirs of a Geisha' Lost in Political Din
  20. ^ "China bans Memoirs of a Geisha". The Guardian (London). February 1, 2006. Retrieved May 12, 2010. 
  21. ^ World History Connected/Vol.1 No.1/Yoshiko Nozaki: "I'm Here Alive": History, Testimony, and the Japanese Controversy over "Comfort Women".
  22. ^ – Yahoo! News
  23. ^ "Lee slates China 'ban' on actress". BBC News. March 20, 2008. 
  24. ^ "The 78th Academy Awards (2006) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-11-20. 

External links

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