The film opens with an almost silent sequence that highlights the considerable talents of young actress Suzuka Ohgo playing the frightened young Chiyo, taken from her impoverished family in 1929 and sold to a renowned geisha house in Kyoto. Here she is subjected to cruel treatment from the owner Mother (Kaori Momoi), who works the little girl to the bone, with Chiyo’s slavery made even more unbearable by the malignant attentions of Hatsumomo (Gong Li from Raise the Red Lantern). The reigning queen of the geisha house, Hatsumomo realises the threat the newcomer represents, not to her present, but to her inheritance, and cruelly engineers her isolation, especially from her only friend, Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh). She frames Chiyo for a minor crime, which leads to her being sold to Mameha (Michelle Yeoh, also from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), a beautiful geisha in her late thirties who is the companion of the Baron (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and his friend, the wealthy Chairman (Ken Watanabe from The Last Samurai). With Mameha’s careful tutelage, the shy and withdrawn Chiyo becomes the radiant geisha Sayuri, the talk of the town and a famed entertainer. The girls have been carefully drilled to realise that love has no role in their new world; that these men are clients, not potential husbands. The distinction between these women and prostitutes, and the geisha and a wife is made clear, with politically motivated flattery replacing the honesty of romance. Nevertheless, Sayuri falls in love with the Chairman, always keeping his dropped handkerchief and a newspaper photograph in the folds of her kimono.
The casting is excellent throughout, although there was some controversy about casting Chinese actresses in the lead roles of what is absolutely a Japanese story. Ken Wanatabe is the only Japanese actor in a major role. All I can add to the debate is the observation that whatever rivalries exist between nations today can’t inform how films are made, or for that matter, reviewed, and that far more troubling to me was that the film is made in in English, rather than Japanese. But subtitles would limit the box office potential of a film like this to a mass audience, so the occasionally indistinct and far less subtle lingua franca of international finance wins out in the end.
Regardless of how she delivers her dialogue, Ziyi Zhang (House Of Flying Daggers) has the face of an angel, sometimes blank and serene but always filled with subtleties and tiny human gestures that add tremendous soul to her performance. For his part, Watanabe’s Chairman, representing an idealised concept of love for the innocent Sayuri (his dropped handkerchief becomes her prized possession) plays a storybook romantic ideal, capable, brave and kind. But their gradual coming together takes a back seat to Sayuri’s own coming of age, which, once achieved, leaves the remainder of the broadly drawn, essentially formulaic Cinderella melodrama with nowhere to go. Still, it is a lovely thing to look at, and sometimes that's enough.
In one way, the painstaking approach to the first two-thirds of the film, the precise and painstaking recreation of this complicated world, is to be applauded; it’s slow unravelling setting a totally immersive, captivating tone. However, the film as a whole never recovers from the brutal intrusion of the Second World War and the subsequent occupation of Japan by the beer-swilling, skirt-chasing Americans. A subplot running through the film that highlights how these young women were cast against each other as rivals falls flat in it’s clumsy resolution, with the viewers attention taken more with where they are (and how gorgeous it all looks) rather than what they are saying to one another or what it means to Sayuri’s desperate love. Marshall has conjured up a lost world with considerable fluency, but the magic of the film is in it's recreations, almost alien in their exoticism, and not its uninvolving emotions.
One of the primary reasons to recommend Memoirs is the beautifully composed, opulent imagery of rising Australian cinematographer Dion Beebe, who takes his inspiration from Japanese woodblock prints and the Shinto belief of Suijin, or water-worship, to create deep, graduated landscapes, swooping perspectives and moments of breathtaking visual poetry; like a sequence representing the end of the war, a stream running with what appears to be blood becomes images of Sayuri hand-washing a red obi. You won’t see a better-looking film this year, it’s a triumph of photography and production design and costuming, but once these images fade, you might be left wondering what happened to the story, which never achieves the same level of careful detail and, well, cinematic craftsmanship.