Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
Memoirs of a Geisha is a historical novel by American author Arthur Golden, published in 1997. The novel, told in first person perspective, tells the fictional story of a geisha working in Kyoto, Japan, before and after World War II.
A literary sensation and runaway bestseller, this brilliant debut novel tells with seamless authenticity and exquisite lyricism the true confessions of one of Japan’s most celebrated geisha.
Speaking to us with the wisdom of age and in a voice at once haunting and startlingly immediate, Nitta Sayuri tells the story of her life as a geisha. It begins in a poor fishing village in 1929, when, as a nine-year-old girl with unusual blue-gray eyes, she is taken from her home and sold into slavery to a renowned geisha house. We witness her transformation as she learns the rigorous arts of the geisha: dance and music; wearing kimono, elaborate makeup, and hair; pouring sake to reveal just a touch of inner wrist; competing with a jealous rival for men’s solicitude and the money that goes with it.
In Memoirs of a Geisha, we enter a world where appearances are paramount; where a girl’s virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder; where women are trained to beguile the most powerful men; and where love is scorned as illusion. It is a unique and triumphant work of fiction—at once romantic, erotic, suspenseful—and completely unforgettable.
After the Japanese edition of the novel was published, Arthur Golden was sued for breach of contract and defamation of character by Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha he had interviewed for background information while writing the novel. The plaintiff asserted that Golden had agreed to protect her anonymity if she told him about her life as a geisha, due to the traditional code of silence about their clients. However, Golden listed Iwasaki as a source in his acknowledgments for the novel, causing her to face a serious backlash, to the point of death threats. In his defense, Arthur Golden countered that he had tapes of his conversations with Iwasaki. Eventually, in 2003, Golden’s publisher settled with Iwasaki out of court for an undisclosed sum of money.
Iwasaki later went on to write an autobiography, which shows a very different picture of twentieth-century geisha life than the one shown in Golden’s novel. The book was published as Geisha, a Life in the U.S. and Geisha of Gion in the U.K.
Memoirs of a Geisha Film version
In 2005, film director Rob Marshall made a film version of the novel. It stars the Chinese actresses Zhang Ziyi as Sayuri, Gong Li as Hatsumomo, and Michelle Yeoh as Mameha; and Japanese actors Ken Watanabe as the Chairman, Suzuka Ohgo as Sayuri’s childhood incarnation Chiyo, and Youki Kudoh as the adult Pumpkin.
Filming was primarily done in California, and in some locations in Kyoto, including Kiyomizu-dera and Fushimi Inari-taisha. It was nominated for and won numerous awards, including nominations for six Academy Awards, three of which – Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design – were won.
Kimiko Akita, in “Orientalism and the Binary of Fact and Fiction in Memoirs of a Geisha“, argues that Memoirs of a Geisha contains orientalist tropes and deep “cultural misrepresentations”. She states that “Golden treated geisha as an object to be sexualized, exoticized, and romanticized by the West”.
For the film, Marshall was criticized in Japan and the West for casting Chinese actors to play Japanese characters in roles firmly entwined with Japanese culture. Additionally, Kimiko argues that the movie instead helped perpetuate views of “Japanese culture and geisha as exotic, backward, irrational, dirty, profane, promiscuous, bizarre, and enigmatic”. In the special features of the DVD, it is noted that few Japanese actresses showed interest in being a part of the production.
According to Arthur Golden’s absorbing first novel, the word “geisha” does not mean “prostitute,” as Westerners ignorantly assume–it means “artisan” or “artist.” To capture the geisha experience in the art of fiction, Golden trained as long and hard as any geisha who must master the arts of music, dance, clever conversation, crafty battle with rival beauties, and cunning seduction of wealthy patrons. After earning degrees in Japanese art and history from Harvard and Columbia–and an M.A. in English–he met a man in Tokyo who was the illegitimate offspring of a renowned businessman and a geisha. This meeting inspired Golden to spend 10 years researching every detail of geisha culture, chiefly relying on the geisha Mineko Iwasaki, who spent years charming the very rich and famous.
The result is a novel with the broad social canvas (and love of coincidence) of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen’s intense attention to the nuances of erotic maneuvering. Readers experience the entire life of a geisha, from her origins as an orphaned fishing-village girl in 1929 to her triumphant auction of her mizuage (virginity) for a record price as a teenager to her reminiscent old age as the distinguished mistress of the powerful patron of her dreams. We discover that a geisha is more analogous to a Western “trophy wife” than to a prostitute–and, as in Austen, flat-out prostitution and early death is a woman’s alternative to the repressive, arcane system of courtship. In simple, elegant prose, Golden puts us right in the tearoom with the geisha; we are there as she gracefully fights for her life in a social situation where careers are made or destroyed by a witticism, a too-revealing (or not revealing enough) glimpse of flesh under the kimono, or a vicious rumor spread by a rival “as cruel as a spider.”
Golden’s web is finely woven, but his book has a serious flaw: the geisha’s true romance rings hollow–the love of her life is a symbol, not a character. Her villainous geisha nemesis is sharply drawn, but she would be more so if we got a deeper peek into the cause of her motiveless malignity–the plight all geisha share. Still, Golden has won the triple crown of fiction: he has created a plausible female protagonist in a vivid, now-vanished world, and he gloriously captures Japanese culture by expressing his thoughts in authentic Eastern metaphors.
From Library Journal
“I wasn’t born and raised to be a Kyoto geisha….I’m a fisherman’s daughter from a little town called Yoroido on the Sea of Japan.” How nine-year-old Chiyo, sold with her sister into slavery by their father after their mother’s death, becomes Sayuri, the beautiful geisha accomplished in the art of entertaining men, is the focus of this fascinating first novel. Narrating her life story from her elegant suite in the Waldorf Astoria, Sayuri tells of her traumatic arrival at the Nitta okiya (a geisha house), where she endures harsh treatment from Granny and Mother, the greedy owners, and from Hatsumomo, the sadistically cruel head geisha. But Sayuri’s chance meeting with the Chairman, who shows her kindness, makes her determined to become a geisha. Under the tutelage of the renowned Mameha, she becomes a leading geisha of the 1930s and 1940s. After the book’s compelling first half, the second half is a bit flat and overlong. Still, Golden, with degrees in Japanese art and history, has brilliantly revealed the culture and traditions of an exotic world, closed to most Westerners. Highly recommended.
-?Wilda Williams, “Library Journal”
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.