Senior HTF Member
- Jan 22, 1999
- Real Name
- Aaron Silverman
Memoirs Of A Geisha
US Theatrical Release: December 9, 2005 (Columbia Pictures/ Dreamworks Pictures)
US DVD Release: March 28, 2006
Running Time: 2:25:38 (28 chapter stops) (The time code jumps ahead by a little over a minute at the start of the film)
Rating: PG-13 (For Mature Subject Matter and Some Sexual Content)
Video: 2.40:1 anamorphic (Extra Features: 1.78:1 non-anamorphic)
Audio: English DD5.1, French DD5.1 (Extra Features: English DD2.0)
Subtitles: English, French (Extra Features: none)
TV-Generated Closed Captions: English (Extra Features: None)
Menus: Some intro and background animation.
Packaging: Standard 2-disc keepcase; insert features a promo photo of Zhang Ziyi in costume on one side and cover images from other Sony Pictures titles on the other.
THE WAY I FEEL ABOUT IT: 3/5
"Write what you know," they always say. Naturally, a young man from Tennessee will set his novel in a 1930s Kyoto geisha house. It's not quite as bizarre as it sounds, however -- said author does have degrees in Japanese art history from Harvard and Japanese history from Columbia, and has even spent time in Japan. In researching his work, he interviewed some famous retired geisha who revealed many secrets of the culture, including Liza Dalby, the only Western woman to ever become a geisha (presumably, he didn’t don the white makeup and kimono himself).
So how authentic is the world of Memoirs Of A Geisha? Well, it may or may not convince anyone in Kyoto, but it’s certainly exotic enough for the average Western audience. The filmmakers constructed an enormous backlot to recreate an entire period neighborhood, complete with a flowing river and footbridge. Other scenes are set in such traditional Japanese venues as a hot spring and a sumo arena. Artisans worked frantically but meticulously to put together a fabulous wardrobe of dozens of beautiful kimonos that transform the cast into elegant pre-war geisha.
Then again, the film sports a few elements of questionable authenticity. Auctioning a new geisha’s, um, flower of innocence to the highest bidder hasn’t exactly been a staple of Japanese culture (there is some evidence that it may have happened on occasion, but that is disputed). And some of the dancing has been embellished in a modern style by the Western choreographers who worked on the film. It’s all done in the name of drama, though, so just chalk it up to poetic license and enjoy the scenery.
The epic melodrama follows the coming of age of Chiyo (portrayed by Suzuka Ohgo as a child and Zhang Ziyi as an adult), a girl from a remote fishing village who is sold to a Kyoto workhouse where, if she shows talent, she can eventually train to become a geisha. But first she faces many Cinderella-like years of floor-scrubbing and kimono-folding.
Two other girls of interest inhabit the house – Pumpkin (Zoe Weizenbaum as a child and Youki Kudoh as an adult), who is of similar age to Chiyo but doesn’t show nearly as much potential, and Hatsumomo (Gong Li), a top geisha who provides the house’s financial support. Hatsumomo is rural Chiyo’s first exposure to the world of geisha, with her extravagant coiffures, magnificent outfits and monstrous ego.
Hatsumomo is set up to be a character of layered complexity -- she brutally oppresses Chiyo, telling her she still smells of fish and framing her for false trespasses, but it seems at first that this could simply be standard hazing of the new gal. She also has a secret lover, sneaking around at night to meet a young man who certainly isn’t a paying client. However, her character narrows as it becomes clear that she considers Chiyo to be a threat. She sees that Chiyo could one day become an even greater geisha than herself, and will almost certainly overtake Hatsumomo’s protégé Pumpkin in the eyes of the house’s Mama-san (Kaori Momoi). Hatsumomo is counting on the house to adopt Pumpkin, thus making her its heir, and the blossoming of Chiyo would very likely end any hope of that. Any purpose for the bitter Hatsumomo beyond simply acting as Chiyo’s antagonist is quickly subsumed by her cruelty and plotting.
There is a fourth piece of this story’s puzzle, and she is Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), the most respected geisha in Kyoto. Mameha sees what young Chiyo could become, and realizes immediately that she would be the perfect tool to use against her rival Hatsumomo. She takes Chiyo under her wing and teaches her the skills that will complement her natural beauty and talent.
These geisha move in circles of rich and powerful men, and their relationship to these men makes for an interesting paradox. Ostensibly, the women are at their beck and call. However, things are not quite so simple. The women live an extremely regimented life focused on providing entertainment and companionship for their clients, but within that structure, they scheme against each other and manipulate the men whose world intersects with theirs only in strictly defined and self-contained moments. Each side of this equation wields great power in its own way.
In addition to illustrating the life of geisha, the film keys on the theme of romantic fantasy. Most important here is an industrialist called the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), whose kindness to Chiyo as a child sparks a crush in her that ignites into a torch that she will carry all the way into adulthood. Pumpkin dreams of succeeding Hatsumomo as a great geisha and inheriting their house, although both goals lie beyond her reach. Hatsumomo defies the rules of her profession to be with her secret lover. Even Mameha, at the very top of the geisha pecking order, is forced to suppress her deep feelings for her danna (patron) to the extent required by decorum.
So here’s a film about the romantic fantasies of four women. It can’t quite escape the label of “chick flick,” but don’t confuse it with a Lifetime Network tragedy-of-the-week. There’s enough going on with the cultural elements of the story to keep it interesting on more than one level, and at least one male character, the Chairman’s business associate Nobu (Koji Yakusho), is fleshed out beyond two dimensions (all the more impressive when one realizes that Yakusho, like several other cast members, doesn’t speak a lick of English and learned his lines phonetically). Men will be talked into seeing Memoirs Of A Geisha by their significant others, but as far as date movies go, they could do a lot worse.
THE WAY I SEE IT: 4.5/5
The stunning image is worthy of the beautiful scenery and costumes that it presents. A very natural film grain is reproduced throughout. Close inspection reveals the barest hints of digital artifacts, but they don’t obscure the picture detail. Edge enhancement has been applied extremely sparingly, popping up only rarely and in barely noticeable touches. The incredible color palette varies according to the mood of the scene and comes through spectacularly; dull at times and bright at others, with nice deep blacks.
THE WAY I HEAR IT: 4.5/5
The soundtrack rivals the near-reference-quality image. The wonderful John Williams score features both Yo-Yo Ma and Yitzhak Perlman in an immersive surround mix. The side, rear and LFE channels are also liberally used to bring ambiance to nearly every scene. Sample chapter 6 to stand in a pouring thunderstorm with Ma and Perlman as young Chiyo runs through the streets calling for her sister -- you’ll feel as though you’re in Kyoto (or at least on the soundstage).
THE SWAG: 3.5/5 (rating combines quality and quantity)
Commentary With Director Rob Marshall and Co-Producer John DeLuca
A fairly run-of-the-mill track, but worth a listen for fans. They cover the usual areas of interest.
Commentary With Costume Designer Colleen Atwood, Production Designer John Myhre and Editor Pietro Scalia
This technical group track goes into a lot of detail about the work of these key crewmembers (two of whom brought home Academy Awards for their work on this film). Good stuff for folks who enjoy how-they-did-it stories.
When the disc is first inserted, the trailer for The DaVinci Code plays automatically. It may be skipped.
- The DaVinci Code (2:32) (DD2.0; 1.85:1 anamorphic) (Note: this trailer features a huge plot spoiler!)
- Fun With Dick & Jane (0:32) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 non-anamorphic)
- Rent (0:32) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 non-anamorphic)
- The White Countess (0:32) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 non-anamorphic)
- The Frank Capra Premiere DVD Collection (1:43) (DD2.0; 1.33:1 non-anamorphic)
- The Legend Of Zorro (0:32) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 non-anamorphic)
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (0:32) (DD2.0; 1.33:1 non-anamorphic)
- The Cutting Edge: Going For The Gold (1:37) (DD2.0; 1.78:1 anamorphic)
Eleven featurettes are included, adding up to just under 2 hours of material. In a bizarre twist of fate, the normally ubiquitous Play All button is no longer so ubiquitous -- the different sections can only be played separately. They all focus on interviews with various members of the cast and crew, with some behind-the-scenes footage and even some historical footage and photographs. Special note should be made of the bubbly and adorable 14-year-old Zoe Weizenbaum (young Pumpkin), who is only briefly featured but explodes with personality (plus she’s a baseball fan from Massachusetts, which is always bonus). Keep an eye out for this kid in the future.
Sayuri’s Journey: From The Novel To The Screen (14:25)
An overview of the creation of the novel, screenplay adaptation and film. Not the most interesting of the features, but better than your average EPK.
The Road To Japan (5:33)
A video journal of the crew’s research trip to Japan.
Geisha Boot Camp (12:03)
Details of the intense musical, dance, and other training that the cast went through to prepare for their roles as geisha.
Building The Hanamachi (12:21)
One of the most fascinating pieces, this covers the design and construction of the huge backlot that represented pre-war Kyoto. This amazing set helped the film garner the Oscar for Best Art Direction.
The Look Of a Geisha (16:18)
This covers the design and creation of the makeup and costumes, which are of course far more interesting than in most films. Colleen Atwood deservedly took home the Oscar for Best Costume Design.
The Music Of “Memoirs” (9:53)
This great extra features John Williams, Yo-Yo Ma and Yitzhak Perlman working on the score and talking about it. A must-see for fans of these great musicians (and of the great score).
A Geisha’s Dance (8:12)
A detailed discussion of the film’s choreography, which took a base of traditional Japanese dance and embellished it with the modern Western styles of the lead choreographers.
The World Of The Geisha (8:29)
A history of the real geisha, which remains a mysterious and controversial topic. Liza Dalby, the only Westerner ever to actually become a geisha and a consultant on the novel and film, has some good insights.
The Way Of The Sumo (5:58)
Some history of Sumo as well as the production of the Sumo sequence from the film, which featured real wrestlers from Japan.
Director Rob Marshall’s Story (10:04)
An interesting overview of Marshall’s life and career as a dancer, choreographer and director up to this point.
A Day With Chef Nobu Matsuhisa (9:43)
The world-renowned chef, who has a brief cameo in the film, talks about his career and his culinary art. He also demonstrates a few favorite recipes.
Chef Nobu’s Recipes
Text pages of the three recipes demonstrated in the Chef Nobu featurette. A web link to printable versions is also included.
Behind-The-Scenes Photo Gallery
22 color production photos can be clicked through using the remote buttons.
Costume Illustrations Photo Gallery
15 color design sketches of Colleen Atwood’s Oscar-winning kimonos, again in a click-through format.
SUMMING IT ALL UP
The Way I Feel About It: 3/5
The Way I See It: 4.5/5
The Way I Hear It: 4.5/5
The Swag: 3.5/5
Memoirs Of A Geisha is an entertaining melodrama with enough of interest to make it watchable for its target audience’s dates. Its visuals and score are nothing short of spectacular, and the fantastic DVD does them both justice. Guys, pick this disc up to impress your lady friends while showing off your hot new home theater equipment! Many hours of solid extra features round out a really great package of a fairly good movie. Fans can be very confident in picking up this title, and those who haven’t seen it yet should find it at least worth a rental.