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