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Thursday, April 12, 2018

Memoirs of a Geisha (1997) by Arthur Golden

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Zhang Ziyi played Chiyo Sakamoto (Geisha name Sayuri Nitta) in the Rob Marshall directed movie version of Memoirs of a Geisha.
Book Review
Memoirs of a Geisha (1997)
by Arthur Golden

  Is there a bigger one hit wonder in 20th century literature than Arthur Golden?  He published Memoirs of Geisha in 1997, and as far as I can tell, hasn't done anything else. The only blemish on the status of Memoirs of a Geisha as an enduring classic is a less-than-fully-succesful but still pretty decent movie version, which managed to cast every Asian actress of note in the lead roles, and be directed by Rob Marshall, in the same movie.  Honestly the way Hollywood works I wouldn't have been surprised to see Scarlett Johansson in the cast listing.

  In 2018, the very existence of a book written by a white American purporting to the Memoirs of a Geisha, even one as well written as this book, borders on cultural appropriation.  This queasy feeling is reinforced by a lawsuit by one of his primary sources for interviews when Memoirs of a Geisha was translated into Japanese. Perhaps the most charitable way to look at Memoirs is as a loving act of homage to a poorly documented time period, but then again, Memoirs is not particularly kind to Japanese society. Little Chiyo Sakamoto is essentially sold into slavery by her father, a poor fisherman with a drinking problem. Her sister is sold directly into a house of prostitution, the prettier Chiyo is apprenticed as a Geisha.

  As Chiyo-then-Sayuri observes during the course of the book, Geisha are neither prostitutes nor mistresses but the succesful ones are largely within the category of "kept women" in terms of their relationship with a primary benefactor who supports her various endeavors, which include yearly dance performances, and endless rounds of entertaining at the various tea houses in town.

  Part of the appeal of Memoirs of a Geisha is the status of the Gion district of Kyoto as the last stronghold of "traditional" geisha culture, uninfluenced by Western modes of dress, style and culture.  Only after the traumatic events of World War II do Americans emerge as peripheral characters, and only at the end of the book does Sayuri make her way to America, presumably the basis for the many comparisons to Western culture that pervade her recollections.  

  One difference between this book and a hypothetical book written by a Japanese author is of course the frequency of those comparisons.  While Japanese literature may be influenced by Western literature, the characters rarely, if ever have cause to comment or interact with the West.  It's probably that added level of context, which, ultimately, is only likely to be introduced by a non-Japanese author that was perhaps the key to the widespread success Memoirs of a Geisha saw in the marketplace.


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