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[FILM] "Memoirs of a Geisha" w/Chinese Stars & Pan-Asian Cast

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  • madchinaman
    The geisha, in translation In Rob Marshall s Memoirs of a Geisha, with Chinese stars and a pan-Asian cast, will some essence go missing? By Bruce Wallace,
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 10, 2005
      The geisha, in translation
      In Rob Marshall's "Memoirs of a Geisha," with Chinese stars and a
      pan-Asian cast, will some essence go missing?
      By Bruce Wallace, Times Staff Writer

      Every move Komomo makes is rooted in Japanese ritual.

      The way her body sinks to kneel, or how she uses just the fingertips
      of her right hand to slide open the wood-framed Japanese doors. The
      way she moves like smoke across the room on her dancer's toes.

      Inside this cramped okiya, a household where aspiring geishas such
      as Komomo study the way dance, music and conversation can spin an
      enchanting mood, every action is a piece of performance art based on
      Japanese tales whispered down through generations.

      "The dances are not just action; they are stories from our history,
      and you have to know that history to express it," says Koito, a
      retired geisha who owns the okiya and watches over Komomo with a
      mentor's possession. "You really have to understand Japanese culture
      to understand geishas."

      Bottling the Japanese essence is the challenge facing American film
      director Rob Marshall and producer Steven Spielberg as they try to
      bring Arthur Golden's bestselling 1997 novel, "Memoirs of a Geisha,"
      alive onscreen. Marshall recently finished shooting and has begun
      editing the estimated $85-million-budget movie, now scheduled for
      Christmas release.

      But long before audiences have even seen a trailer, "Memoirs" has
      generated an underground controversy over the director's decision to
      cast non-Japanese actresses in the three leading geisha parts. From
      the opaque alleys of Kyoto's geisha districts to Internet movie chat
      rooms and the cast of the movie itself, the decision has created
      unease over what kind of footprint Hollywood will leave on this
      iconic element of traditional Japanese culture.

      Declaring that "my only criteria was who's the best person for the
      role," Marshall chose China's Ziyi Zhang ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden
      Dragon") to play Sayuri, the fictional Japanese girl snatched from
      her humble fishing village and taken to a Kyoto okiya where she
      becomes the most celebrated geisha of the 1930s.

      Marshall then cast Gong Li, perhaps the most recognizable
      international Chinese star of her generation, as Sayuri's conniving
      rival, Hatsumomo. He picked Malaysian Michelle Yeoh, also
      of "Crouching Tiger" fame, to play the guiding mother figure, Mameha.

      And he salted his vision of Japan's imperial age with supporting
      actors and extras from a multitude of Asian ethnicities.

      The choice of a pan-Asian cast raises hard questions about the way
      Hollywood views the world outside America. By using Chinese actors
      in quintessential Japanese roles, has Marshall become the Quiet
      American director, an innocent abroad, shaving the edges off human
      diversity to produce an imagined Japan for an American audience that
      doesn't know the real thing?

      Or is it a progressive act, as Marshall says, nothing more sinister
      than hiring the best-qualified actors, regardless of ethnicity, to
      do what actors do: act?

      "Geisha is a part of Japan's eternal culture," leading Chinese
      director Chen Kaige ("Farewell, My Concubine") said at a symposium
      on Asian values at Japan's Kobe University last November. Chen has
      directed Gong in three movies, but he sharply criticized Marshall's
      decision to cast her and other non-Japanese actresses as geishas.

      "Every action you make, how you walk, how you use a Japanese fan,
      how you treat people and what kind of facial expressions you have
      when you talk is going to be expressed based on your Japanese
      cultural sophistication," he said. "Japanese culture, as well as
      Chinese [culture], has something very profound which can't be easily

      "For Hollywood, however, this does not matter. For them, there is no
      difference between Japanese and Chinese."

      The studio responded to Kaige's comments by pointing out that he
      once expressed an interest in directing the film. Golden, the
      author, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

      For his part, Marshall counters by saying that he is proud of what
      he calls "nontraditional casting."

      "I'm not doing a documentary of the geisha world — this is a fable,"
      the director said in a phone interview during a break from editing
      in Culver City. "I'm very proud of an international cast. It is a
      celebration of the Asian community. I think it brings the world

      Into the past

      Cross-CULTURAL casting is nothing new to Hollywood. After all, Al
      Jolson was not just a white man in blackface. He was a Lithuanian
      Jew. Marshall points out that the coveted role of Scarlett O'Hara
      went to English rose Vivien Leigh, Egyptian Omar Sharif played the
      Russian Dr. Zhivago, and American Johnny Depp was perfectly credible
      as Scotsman J.M. Barrie last year in "Finding Neverland."

      But the Chinese-Japanese relationship is significantly more fraught
      than the one between the United States and Scotland. The Asian
      neighbors share a history of invasion, occupation and brutality over
      the last century that has left millions dead and memories scarred.

      "Memoirs of a Geisha" is set during the 1930s imperial period in
      Japan, when Japanese troops were marauding across Asia, conscripting
      tens of thousands of Chinese and Korean men into slave labor and
      forcing "comfort women" to provide sex to Japanese soldiers. In the
      name of throwing the Western powers out of Asia, Japan's militarist
      government claimed to be uniting Asians under its leadership, and
      argued that Korea and the parts of China it had conquered were no
      longer foreign countries but a part of Japan.

      Ironically, the military government used geishas as a propaganda
      tool to spread the notion that Japan had united the countries of
      Asia in one happy pan-Asian family. In the late 1930s, Kyoto's
      annual springtime Miyako Odori dance celebrated such monstrous
      events as the Japanese conquest of Nanking, where thousands of
      Chinese civilians were killed in a slaughter that is still a pulsing
      wound between the countries.

      Marshall's response is that he does not know — and does not care —
      about that history.

      "I don't go into that world of Japan and China," the director
      says. "That's something I can't speak about because I don't know the
      relationship there. That's not what I'm doing. I'm re-creating a
      work of fiction as a filmmaker.

      "If I were a political being and that was something I was interested
      in and a part of, that would be something I would be focused on," he
      says. "But that's not where my focus is. My focus is bringing this
      to life."

      Others argue it is critical that Hollywood pay attention to the
      subtleties of history and politics. The rest of the world is judging
      American values, they say, and one of the criteria is whether
      Americans can see foreign cultures as something more than a pretty
      backdrop, more than an exotic stereotype to be appropriated and

      "Americans are too often oblivious to distinctions between Asian
      cultures, and Hollywood should not be encouraging that," says Merry
      White, an anthropology professor at Boston University who was a
      consultant on Golden's book. "History has to be recognized. The
      world is watching us, to see how we see them."

      Marshall acknowledges that casting a movie of mixed cultural
      complexion was not his original preference. The director says he
      spent a year searching for a Japanese actress with the combination
      of dancing skills, beauty and English proficiency to play Sayuri.

      "She also had to be someone who could hold a movie, carry it on her
      back," Marshall said. "I felt like I was casting Scarlett O'Hara."

      Several years ago, Steven Spielberg found a Japanese Sayuri. He
      acquired the rights to "Memoirs" in 1997 (back then, Akira Kurosawa,
      the legendary Japanese film director who was a friend and hero to
      the American director, was pressing him to shoot the movie in
      Japanese with English subtitles) and within a year, he cast Rika
      Okamoto, a Tokyo-born, New York-based dancer, in the lead.

      "I was very lucky at that time," Okamoto said in a phone interview
      from New York, where she now dances in the Tony Award-
      winning "Movin' Out." But filming kept getting postponed and, "as
      things dragged on, I had to move on with my life," she says.

      Okamoto says she understands why there is a debate about the
      ethnicity of the actor who replaced her. "People are sensitive about
      this; Japanese culture has always been mis-described in American
      movies," she says. "Japanese people are very proud of their culture,
      and geisha is a special part of that culture."

      But she is sanguine despite losing the role and praises Marshall's
      choices as "very talented actors."

      "It's a Hollywood movie," she says. "I understand what happened
      because I'm in show business. And this is his show."

      Casting a wide net

      But "Memoirs" had trouble getting liftoff. Filming was postponed, in
      part, by a lawsuit over Golden's book from geisha Mineko Iwasaki,
      who had given the author a behind-the-sliding-door tour of the
      geisha world, then declared that the book's references to sex-for-
      sale tarnished her reputation. Spielberg gave up plans to direct the
      movie in 2002 (though he remains as executive producer), eventually
      turning direction over to Marshall, who was looking for a suitable
      project to follow "Chicago," his dazzling directing debut.

      Marshall says he auditioned and looked at tapes of "dozens and
      dozens of Japanese actors" but couldn't find one who met all his
      criteria for Sayuri. (Okamoto says Marshall never called her. "I
      auditioned for it again, of course," she says. Her videotape was

      "I said, 'Guys, we need to cast a wider net,' " Marshall recalls.
      Back in New York, he met and auditioned Zhang. "I had seen her
      in 'Crouching Tiger' and thought she was beautiful," he says, adding
      with a laugh that Spielberg had rejected Zhang for a part
      in "Memoirs" years earlier because the only English words she knew
      at the time were "hire me."

      But the new director was taken by Zhang's athleticism and her
      dancer's training. "It was the fit," he says. "It was the slipper."

      The decision to cast Chinese actresses in the main roles was widely
      debated at Sony Pictures — a Japanese company, after all — and by
      the movie's producers, including Spielberg. In a movie without a big-
      name male lead, Zhang's rising star power in the West had appeal.
      She is already a superstar in Asia and is well-known in Japan.

      She even does a Japanese shampoo commercial, although she doesn't
      try to pass herself off as Japanese. The product is called
      Asiasense, and the marketing promises to give Japanese women a pan-
      Asian look.

      "We talked about it at length and we said, 'What about this [or
      that] Japanese actress, would she work?' " Marshall recalls of the
      casting discussions. "And I said: 'Yes, but you know what? She's not
      as good.' And everybody agreed."

      Unlike "The Last Samurai," which was well received in Japan and used
      Japanese extras, casting calls for extras in "Memoirs" asked only
      for "light-skinned Asians." Asked if there were any limits to
      nontraditional casting, Marshall replies: "None." Asked if there
      were any roles that might be sacred to a culture, making
      nontraditional casting inappropriate — such as hiring a Palestinian
      actor to play an Israeli political hero — he again responds that he
      isn't a political person. "That's another world for me," he says.

      Some of his cast members had doubts, however. Marshall says he could
      tell that Japan's Ken Watanabe, who plays the leading male role of
      the Chairman, was "reticent" about the casting. He says Watanabe was
      won over seeing rushes of Zhang's performance.

      At least one Asian actor balked at taking part.

      "Since it is a film by Steven Spielberg and Rob Marshall, I first
      thought maybe I should just close my eyes tight and just do it,"
      said Kim Yoon-Jin, a Korean American actress now starring in the
      U.S. TV drama "Lost," who says she was offered — but turned down — a
      supporting role in "Memoirs."

      "Even if it is Hollywood, I don't want to start by playing a
      Japanese geisha," she told the Korean media. "It's a matter of

      Marshall says he was encouraged by the reaction of the Japanese
      media to the movie after he and some of the cast gave a news
      conference in Tokyo at the conclusion of filming. He showed a few
      clips from the movie and described the reaction as "unbelievably

      But there was some grumbling about the preview clips in Japan's
      combative large-circulation weekly magazines, whose reviewers picked
      apart "mistakes" they said damaged the film's authenticity. In
      particular, they complained about a scene where a young girl is
      whipped by a geisha, something experts say never happened during
      that period.

      "Well, I'm doing a version of the book," Marshall says. "And in
      Arthur's book, they were whipped."

      Even so, there is little indication that the movie is about to cause
      riots in Japan. Most Japanese seem prepared to discount any
      distortions or insensitivities as inevitable in another Americanized
      view of their culture.

      It is a long list, including such entries as Bugs Bunny's appearance
      in geisha drag whacking a sumo wrestler over the head with a mallet
      in 1944's "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips."

      "The geisha movies of the 1960s and '70s seem so clichéd," Marshall
      says. "Little Japanese dolls, rubbing men's backs. In fact, the
      geishas of the '20s, '30s and '40s were the supermodels of their

      Younger audience

      Zhang is also an extremely appealing actor, who could very well draw
      younger Japanese fans who have admired her dazzling work
      in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "House of Flying Daggers."
      Japanese actress Kaori Momoi, who is cast as the mistress of the
      geisha teahouse, told reporters in Tokyo she believes Marshall's
      approach will appeal to younger Japanese. Though she said she was
      initially shocked by the casting of Chinese actresses, she came to
      realize "that the book is told through the eyes of an American and
      for the film, further filtered through an American director's lens."

      "I wanted to play up my nationality," she said. "There were some
      details that were wrong, such as the makeup wasn't thick enough on
      the geisha. But in the end, I think this modern twist on geishas
      will appeal to younger audiences."

      In Kyoto, the geishas (known here as geikos) and maikos, their
      apprentices, are accustomed to being portrayed as a living
      cliché. "When I look at geishas on TV or in the movies — even
      Japanese movies — I shouldn't laugh, but it is totally different
      from our lives," Koito says from behind the bar of her okiya.

      Kneeling across from her, Komomo nods. She is 19, Tokyo-born but
      spent her high school years living in China, where her businessman
      father was based. She loved historical novels of Kyoto as a young
      girl and from the time she was 12 longed to become a geisha. She
      sees it as an assertion of her Japanese identity.

      "When I lived in China I had Chinese friends, and my impression was
      they had a totally different kind of awareness and essence," Komomo
      says in the soft song of her adopted Kyoto accent. "So even though
      they are actresses, I don't know how they will play a Japanese
      geisha in a movie.

      "When we watch Japanese films about geishas, it usually leaves us
      unsatisfied," she says. "This movie will be made by a non-Japanese,
      with non-Japanese actresses. So we'll see."
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