Memoirs of a Geisha, Part I: Memoirs of Post Modern Orientalism
We’ve been hearing claims that Hollywood can’t make a big movie with an ethnic Asian female lead. Asian actresses are not #WhitewashedOUT if the woman is playing a prostitute as in the 2005 movie “Memoirs of a Geisha.” The movie was based on Arthur Golden’s 1997 best-selling novel of the same name.
For me, this is a deal-breaker of a movie. When I hear people comment that the movie doesn’t support stereotypes, or praise it for its authenticity, I’m filled with a blazing anger and a suffocating sadness. Some things never seem to change.
Golden received a bachelor’s degree in art history, specializing in Japanese art from Harvard. He went on to get a masters in Japanese history from Columbia. I have never seen the full movie, but I have read the book as well as anthropologist Liza Dalby’s book “Geisha” (who as consultant for the movie) and the rebuttal to Golden’s book, Mineko Iwasaki’s 2002 “Geisha: A Life.” After reading Golden’s book, I felt it was impossible that anything good could come of it. After seeing the preview trailers which featured very un-Japanese dance segments and after reading Iwasaki’s account and learning about her lawsuit, I felt my worst fears had been realized.
If you read the reviews on Amazon.com, then out of 3,286 reviews, the novel has a 68 percent rating of five stars. The movie has a 61 percent five-star rating (out of 724). The top customer review of the movie mentions “the reserved nature of Asian women,” as if all the women of the earth’s most populous continent that is home to many different cultures shared essentially the same values, at least for women.
In his movie review, Roger Ebert wrote, “I suspect that the more you know about Japan and movies, the less you will enjoy ‘Memoirs of a Geisha.” Much of what I know about Japan I learned from Japanese movies, and on that basis I know this is not a movie about actual geishas, but depends on the romanticism of female subjection. The heroines here look so very beautiful and their world is so visually enchanting as they lived trapped in sexual slavery.” Yet he also acknowledged that he could list Japanese movies that better illustrate a different view of geisha, “but the last thing the audience for ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ wants to see is a more truthful film with less gorgeous women and shabbier production values.” This movie’s audience wanted to see “beauty, sex, tradition and exoticism all choreographed into a dance of strategy and desire.”
While he acknowledged that a geisha “is not technically a prostitute,” he asserted that they were prostitutes and clarified by stating, “certainly the traditions of the geisha house are culturally fascinating,” but continued by writing, “if the movie had been set in the West, it would be perceived as about children sold into prostitution.” Ultimately, he felt the somewhat uneasy about the movie, in the same manner he had for the 1978 “Pretty Baby” where Brooke Shields played a 12-year-old girl having her virginity auctioned away in New Orleans, but concluded by writing “The difference is that ‘Pretty Baby’ doesn’t evoke nostalgia, or regret the passing of the world it depicts.”
Ebert didn’t object to the Chinese women playing the leads, but he doesn’t speak Japanese. In her 2006 essay, “Orientalism and the Binary of Fact and Fiction in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha,” Kimiko Akita notes that “Westerners would not recognize any differences between the movements or speech of Chinese and Japanese actresses. Asian-accented English might seem fetchingly exotic to Western ears.” Akita graduated from Nanzan Junior College in Japan and eventually earned her Ph.D. in Communication from Ohio University. She currently teaches at Aichi Prefectural University in the Foreign Studies department in Japan.
For Akita, who applies Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism, the success of both the book and the movie “tells us something about the American cultural tastes for the Orient,” and signifies “Orientals” as “a sexualized and exoticized object to be commodified by the West.” As per Said, Akita finds the “Orient” a Western construction and the popularity of the book and the movie illustrate an appetite for “postmodern American Orientalism.”
Chillingly, Akita asserts that the book “has been adopted for use in literature and other humanities classes at some U.S. colleges and universities.” For Akita, “Memoirs” imposes “barriers to better intercultural understanding and communication.” In the movie, Akita finds that the use of an American Occupation soldier evokes nostalgia for U.S. dominance of Japan after World War II.” Golden establishes that “the colonizer is privileged to sexualize and consume the bodies of the colonized, who welcome their advances.” In the book, Sayuri explains that “All the stories about invading Americans soldiers raping and killing us had turned out to be wrong; and in fact, we gradually came to realize that the Americans on the whole were remarkably kind.”
Akita doesn’t mention this, however, rape did occur during the American Occupation of Japan, but others such as Terese Svoboda (“U.S. Courts-Martial in Occupation Japan: Rape, Race and Censorship“) notes that rape, robbery and even murder were problems under the Occupation Army. The information was suppressed in Japanese and non-Japanese papers once the Occupation became more established. Svoboda also notes some of the incidents included gang rapes and “institutionalized rape.” That complicated the case of the comfort women of all races, in addition to the finding that rape was not a war crime in both the tribunals at both Nuremberg and Tokyo. Svoboda found that race was indeed an issue in the prosecution of rape. In Europe, black soldiers were more likely to face execution than white soldiers. In Japan, those records are murkier according to Svoboda. Svoboda writes, “Although white and black soldiers were convicted of rape in both theaters during the war, only black servicemen were executed for this crime.” Erasing this evidence of rape, clouds other issues, including the so-called comfort women.
Race was in issue during World War II and it remains an issue now in real life and at the movies. In cinematic history, “Memoirs of a Geisha” was preceded by the 1997 “Amistad,” the 1992 “Malcolm X,” the 1985 “The Color Purple,” the 1996 “Waiting to Exhale,” the 2008 “The Great Debaters,” the 1993 “The Joy Luck Club,” and Ang Lee’s 2000 “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Yet there was also the 1999 “Snow Falling on Cedars” and “Memoirs” was followed by the 2008 Sony movie, “21.” While black history was being explored and even celebrated and novels by black writers were making it to the screen, the choice of “Memoirs,” even for a Japanese company like Sony, was a step backward in race relations and international understanding.
Amy Tan’s book “The Joy Luck Club” indicated that novels by and about East Asians as American immigrants could be successful. “Crouching Tiger” demonstrated that foreign language films with Asian casts could be blockbusters. On the other hand, “Snow Falling” harked back to the World War II mentality that American-born Asians were more Asian than American by casting a Japanese actress who spoke English with a Japanese accent even though she was playing an American-born woman of Japanese ethnicity. “Memoirs” presented Chinese and Japanese women as essentially the same in physical appearance and foreign accents. According to Akita, the Japanese culture played little significance in the movie.
“Memoirs” as both a translated book and a movie was not successful in Japan although it seems to have increased interest in Japan in the U.S and other areas. In that respect, “Memoirs” was not unlike the mini series “Shogun”–a hit in the U.S. and a flop in Japan.
Memoirs of a Geisha, Part II: How Are Geisha or Nerd Stereotypes Harmful?
Someone asked me how has a book or movie like “Memoirs” hurt me? While I admit that some people embrace stereotypes and some women may enjoy being exotica, I do not. I suspect that when some people hire me, they assume I will fit inside a neat template, one that involves a demure, submissive woman once I find my inner geisha. That is likely what inspired a slightly inebriated Japanese American supervisor to throw a punch at my face at a company party. Soon after, the whole company was forced to take sensitivity training when my immediate supervisor admitted that one of his problems with me was that I didn’t talk like a girl should to a man.
Dating online, I found that identifying myself as being of Japanese ethnicity made me astoundingly popular with Asian a distant second. In online forays, men–Asian, black and white, would then instruct me on how to be more Japanese. Black and white men could barely refrain from telling me how they were superior to Asian men, forgetting that my father and brother would be Asian. By putting Asian men down, they were casting derogatory remarks at my family. Moreover, polite rejections brought angry declarations that the men had fornicated with my mother for a couple of bucks overseas; Why did I consider myself so precious?
The stereotype that Chris Rock used at the Oscars of precociously intelligent and geeky kids was one aspect of me when I was in grade school, but that stereotype hurts me because it assumes that my achievements are not made through individual determination and hard work. This stereotype also sets a resentful burden on ethnic Asians who wouldn’t qualify for Mensa. Then there are other assumptions linked to it: Asians and other “intelligent” minorities are work horses rather than racehorses and accountants aren’t sexy–they are almost asexual.
Culturally, the geisha was a relatively recent development in Japanese history and the percentage of women in the profession then and now is relatively low. There were and are male geisha. Sometimes, faux geisha have passed for the real thing for foreigners with fetishes and Oriental fantasies. Geisha is a female-dominant closed society. All of this doesn’t fit into the Western narrative of women as commodities. The samurai have a longer history in Japan than the geisha and yet only constituted a small part of the population, about 10 percent. Japan shouldn’t be simplistically defined by the samurai and the geisha.
Like other countries, Japan has had exceptional women. Why not focus on them instead of geisha? France had Joan of Arc; France and Poland have scientist Marie Curie; England had Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria. Japan had Murasaki Shikibu, the writer of the world’s first novel; Masako Hojo, the widow of Yoritomo Minamoto and a powerful political figure in her own right; Tomoe Gozen, a female warrior during the Genpei War, and during time of Queen Victoria’s reign, Takeko Nakano, who fought during the Boshin War. Why aren’t big budget American movies made about these women? And if they were, would an ethnic Asian be allowed to play the roles or would these roles be whitewashed like “21” or “Ghost in the Shell”?
Roger learned about Japanese culture from Japanese movies. The movies can both instruct and mislead. Roger gave the 2003 Tom Cruise flick “The Last Samurai” three and a half stars. He wrote, “The battle scenes are stirring and elegantly mounted, but they are less about who wins than about what can be proven by dying. Beautifully designed, intelligently written, acted with conviction, it’s an uncommonly thoughtful epic.” The movie was well received in Japan as well although the Mainichi Shimbun writer Tomomi Katsuta considered the portrayal of the noble samurai as a bit dated (the Oscar-nominated “The Twilight Samurai” came out in 2002). Katsuta told the New York Times, “Our image of samurai are that they were more corrupt (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/04/movies/land-of-the-rising-cliche.html). Another ethnocentric and less than authentic touch in “The Last Samurai,” attributed all the contributions of other nations (such as France and Great Britain and Japan’s long-time partner the Netherlands) to the United States.
“Memoirs of a Geisha,” made for $85 million and grossed $158 million internationally. It had the second highest per theater average in 2005. That flies in the face of current claims regarding the casting of Scarlett Johansson for “Ghost in the Shell” that there are no ethnic Asian women who could open a major movie. Scarlett Johanssson is 31. Zhang Ziyi is 37. Does that six years really make a difference? Or have things really changed in Hollywood between when “Memoirs” was made and now? Or is the casting of Scarlett Johansson just another example of Asian heroes being #WhitewashedOUT as in “21” and “The Last Airbender”?
Has the image of Asian women changed since Suzie Wong and Madame Butterfly? “Memoirs” garnered considerable negative attention amongst Asian American women in the U.S. nationwide just prior to its Hollywood premiere when a casting call went out for “beautiful Asian women” to dress up and “mingle in character” for the official premiere party <http://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/04/movies/land-of-the-rising-cliche.html>. There were numerous complaints about the treatment of Asian women as being essentially the same and a commodity no different from the ice sculpture or an inflatable palm tree, and some questioned why attractive Asian men were not needed to create “the ambience of ancient Japan, circa 1870s.” Did any American firm send out casting calls for beautiful black women to dress up and mingle in character as maids for a 2011 premiere party for “The Help” or as Rayettes for a 2004 premiere party for “Ray”?
Wouldn’t most women of any color prefer to be a superhero, a warrior woman, than what Americans imagine a geisha is–prostitute? Interpreting the “Memoirs” geisha as representing the true geisha and the essence of Japanese womanhood is sliding down the slippery slope of the science fiction horror story “The Stepford Wives.” Do other women have similar experiences now, a decade after I’ve stopped dating? I’d be intrigued to know if you’ve felt the need to tell men or women: “I’m #NotYourGeisha.”