“Memoirs of a Geisha”
Japanese culture had always been unique in the world view and many traditions. Since Japan was a closed country for a very long time, its traditions could not be observed anywhere else. One of the most outstanding cultural phenomena is the existence of geishas. This tradition is highly unique and extraordinary, which makes it nearly impossible to understand fully by foreigners, especially from Europe and America. The movie Memoirs of a Geisha by Rob Marshall (2005) is one of the best examples that help to understand the essence of geisha phenomenon. In order to interpret traditional Japanese understanding and treatment of geishas, the information from the movie should be considered more closely.
The process of becoming a geisha starts in the very childhood of a girl. In the film, the main character Chiyo was sold by her parents at the age of nine. In Japanese culture, the whole process of making a geisha from a girl takes few years of studying and training and is very expensive. For this reason, geishas usually start their careers being in a huge financial debt to the owner of geisha houses, who are typically females. Such proprietresses are considered to be successful business women, because they select promising girls, make investments into their development, and have power over nearly all geishas’ income.
The most controversial issue about geishas is the question whether they should be considered as prostitutes. This exact part of geisha phenomenon is the hardest for understanding to foreigners, because there is no full analogue in other cultures. The word ‘geisha’ means ‘entertainer’ that may imply different kinds of entertainment. On the other hand, geishas can never be compared to prostitutes, because they do not sell their bodies; the only thing they sell is art. In fact, this art is performed in many forms, for example, dancing, singing, playing samisen as well as communicating, expressing thoughts, and making wealthy men feel good spiritually. However, there is one ritual that is based on the idea of selling virginity (mizuage) that has features of prostitution. Virginity of maiko is highly valuable, and wealthy men can spend fortunes to become the first who will turn maiko to a full-right geisha. In the film, there was an auction for the mizuage of the main heroine with the participants chosen by the mentoring older geisha Mameha. In fact, geisha can also perform services for men’s physical pleasure; at the same time, no prostitute has the right to call herself a geisha.
The controversy of geisha’s phenomenon also lies in the fact that geisha girls can have everything they want and nothing at the same time. From the very beginning of becoming geishas, many young girls are taken away from their families in order to make them emotionless in the end. According to the traditional rules, geisha cannot love and has nearly no right for private personal life, especially with men who are poor. This does not mean that geishas cannot get married in the future; however, they can do it only after terminating their geisha status. The film depicts some geishas as unhappy women; for example, Hatsumomo is forbidden to date and see the young man she loves, and Mameha cannot be the only one for her danna who she loves though refuses to admit it. The attitude towards geishas is also different, because some people may worship them and consider them the top of the nature’s creation while others (mostly customers and owners) can see them closer to slaves or coarsen females who must pay off their debt and must do everything they are told.
As stated above, a girl must work hard to become a geisha. The hard work includes strengthening both physical and emotional conditions. To become graceful in every move, a woman must spend hours of practice and train even at the nighttime, for example, sleeping with rice in the bed. Therefore, beauty and suffering are inseparable for those geishas who want to have an excellent career and become one of the best.
The geisha world is one-of-a-kind, and it is an extraordinary mixture of grace, philosophy, art, and business. A strong rivalry could be observed between the geishas who want to become the best and the most famous. Tactics for other geisha’s elimination are different, for example, destroying expensive kimono, slander, etc. Thus, every geisha must be petite, have a strong will, and be wise. In addition, some women consider becoming geishas as finding a good place in life, because they can become adopted daughters of geisha house owners and inherit the business as well as become completely free.
Japanese traditions have always been under the influence of nature symbols. In the movie, the main heroine is the embodiment of water because of the deep blue color of her eyes, which is a very strong power in Japanese culture. The episode with the fire in the geisha house depicts the symbolic conflict of two opposite sides – water and fire (which is the symbol of Hatsumomo).
Taking into account everything mentioned above, it should be stated that people from the American culture will never understand the whole idea of geishas’ culture and traditions because of significant differences in mentalities. In Japanese culture, geishas can have everything they need as well as be mighty and nobody at the same time. In addition, they are highly desirable by nearly every Japanese man but have no right to have feelings themselves. Every geisha is the combination of old traditions, philosophy, and art in their high points.