Sushi, Without the Extras

How do you think he got the ideas for the Prince? From his cat, of course.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Memoirs of a Geisha

Last night was an evening of dinner and a movie with some friends, though half of us went to see something else, mostly due to a box office sell-out, which is something I never anticipated would happen. Being in the unprepared contingent, I ended up going to see Memoirs of a Geisha, which is a film I've been wanting to see and lacking an excuse to do so.

The film is beautiful. The kimonos are beautiful. The women, despite not being Japanese, are beautiful. A highly recognizeable Japanese actor plays Nobu-san, and despite his disfiguration, he's still beautiful. The dancing is beautiful. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

However, this film is not Japanese. I remember reading about the film's debut in Japan amid much uproar; one commentator noted that it was interesting to see a Western interpretation of Japan's history, which is a subtle way of saying "You didn't get it right, nutty Yanks." It isn't that the Japanese aren't open to the concept of a western film about Japanese events. The Last Samurai grossed more in Japan than it did in the United States, which doesn't surprise me. The very elements that make the film tedious to American audiences would appeal to the Japanese. What we took as cliche references to the code of the samurai, the Japanese saw as a glorification of bushido. What were to Americans flat, uninteresting characters were archetypes familiar to a culture whose storytelling style is highly ritualized, stylized, and simplified. I do not mean to give the impression that Japanese stories are simplistic, by the way. I said they were simple, but they're simple in the same way Hemingway is. They're highly distilled and polished gems, which is a trait that is less prized in our vocal culture.

Geisha failed to capture the Japanese imagination, and that's because Geisha is not a Japanese story but a Western one. On the ride home, my friend and I discussed the concept of evolution of culture, which seemed rather obvious to me, but he, as a biologist, seemed to think somewhat oversimplified. Cultures change and adapt to new environmental factors such as new technology, natural disasters, and contact with other, different cultures. My friend agreed with that idea in principle, but he went on to assert that what actually happens is that all cultures seek to meld with the culture with which they come into contact. Ultimately, his argument was that all cultures leave changed once they interact with another one. To a certain extent, that is true, but it, too, is an overgeneralization of the case. What happens is often that one culture will take elements from another culture and supplement its own by placing the new ideas and concepts acquired thusly in a new context, particulalry unique to the original culture.

The Japanese language is full of examples. The language has incorporated words and phrases from English, German, Portuguese, and who knows how many other languages into itself, but the cocky Westerner should not assume he or she will recognize the context. The Japanese word for "pepper" is piman from pimento, regardless of the treatment of the pepper. It is true that a hamburger and hanbugaa refer to the same food, but any international traveller will discover that hamburgers are not the same the world over. They are altered to fit the palate of the nation in which one finds them. Even the Japanese version of baseball is different. Japanese aren't interested in who wins the game--in fact, they prefer a tie so that neither team loses face. An American sitting in the stands would be horrified, but there are different cultural issues at work.

The same is true of Geisha. The Western director has taken an inherently Japanese idea--the geisha--and incorporated it into a story familiar to Western audiences. There's a woman who finds herself on hard times through no fault of her own. She climbs her way to a higher station by taking advantage of her beauty and her own personal strengths. She survives a war that devastated her former station but surmounts the obstacles to win wealth and and her lover. On the face of it, the story is a cross between Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Gone with the Wind. Neither of these are stories that will really appeal to a Japanese audience because they're about individual desires that either are destroyed by the will of the community or triumphs despite the community, to a certain extent, anyway.

Essentially, what happened was a Western filmmaker used Japanese concepts and ideas and put them into a Western context in order to tell a new story. It's a story about personal strength, survival in adversity, and finally, the triumph of love. However, the uniquely Japanese concept of a "geisha", allows for imperfection. Sayuri can never be a wife, though she achieves a sort of happiness. It's a more human ending than the perfect "Disney" endings we see in other films.

And I'll stop rambling now.


Blogger Robert Farley said...

I didn't see any good reason to see MOTG; it really irritated me that they couldn't be bothered to track down any Japanese actresses for the main roles.

7:50 AM  
Blogger Meow said...

Meh, I was curious about it. I wondered how they were going to do the film using non-Japanese actresses. They did use a surprising number of Japanese actors for the film, including one who is very well known in Japan. It was quite the break out role for him--I had no idea that he spoke English and so was well pleased to see him take part in the film.

Kyoto's reaction was to ignore the film, which is quite an insult indeed. Like I said, I don't think is this is particularly a film about Japanese themes anyway.

8:30 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home