Memoirs of a Geisha (film)

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Memoirs of a Geisha
Memoirs of a Geisha Poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRob Marshall
Screenplay byRobin Swicord
Based onMemoirs of a Geisha
by Arthur Golden
Produced by
CinematographyDion Beebe
Edited byPietro Scalia
Music byJohn Williams
Distributed bySony Pictures Releasing
Release date
  • November 29, 2005 (2005-11-29) (Tokyo premiere)
  • December 9, 2005 (2005-12-09) (United States)
Running time
145 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
  • English
  • Japanese
Budget$85 million
Box office$162.2 million

Memoirs of a Geisha is a 2005 American epic period drama film directed by Rob Marshall and adapted by Robin Swicord from the 1997 novel of the same name by Arthur Golden.[2][3] It tells the story of a young Japanese girl, Chiyo Sakamoto, who is sold by her impoverished family to a geisha house (okiya) to support them by training as and eventually becoming a geisha under the pseudonym "Sayuri Nitta." The film centers around the sacrifices and hardship faced by pre-World War II geisha, and the challenges posed by the war and a modernizing world to geisha society. It stars Zhang Ziyi in the lead role, with Ken Watanabe, Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh, Youki Kudoh, Suzuka Ohgo, and Samantha Futerman.

The film was produced by Steven Spielberg (through production companies Amblin Entertainment and DreamWorks Pictures) and Douglas Wick (through Red Wagon Entertainment). Production was split between southern and northern California and a number of locations in Kyoto, including the Kiyomizu temple and the Fushimi Inari shrine. It was released in the United States on December 9, 2005, by Columbia Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures, with the latter receiving studio credit only.

The film was released to polarized reviews from critics worldwide and was moderately successful at the box office. It was also nominated for and won numerous awards, including nominations for six Academy Awards, and eventually won three: Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. The acting, visuals, sets, costumes, and the musical score (composed by John Williams) were praised, but the film was criticized for casting some non-Japanese actresses as Japanese women and for its style over substance approach. The Japanese release of the film was titled Sayuri, the titular character's geisha name.


In 1929, Chiyo Sakamoto, a young girl living in a poor fishing village by the sea, is sold to a geisha house by her father alongside her sister, Satsu, so that they might send money back home. Chiyo is taken in by Kayoko Nitta, the "Mother" (proprietress) of a geisha house (okiya) in Miyaki, Kyoto, whereas Satsu, deemed too unattractive, is sent to a brothel instead. Chiyo meets "Granny" and "Auntie", the other women who run the house, and the okiya's only working geisha, Hatsumomo, who is beautiful but cruel. Chiyo meets another young girl nicknamed Pumpkin, who she becomes friends with.

Hatsumomo, seeing Chiyo as a potential rival, especially with her striking blue-gray eyes, intimidates Chiyo into acting as her servant. Chiyo and Pumpkin soon begin training as geisha at a nearby school, alongside hundreds of other girls. One night, Hatsumomo, returning drunk from a night out, forces Chiyo to destroy a kimono belonging to Mameha, Hatsumomo's geisha rival, before returning it to her house. Mameha catches Chiyo, who is blamed for its destruction and punished by being lashed, and is told that her debt to the okiya has increased even more.

Hatsumomo, who hopes Chiyo will run away, tells Chiyo where she can find her sister Satsu in the red light district. They make plans to run away the following night. When Chiyo returns to the okiya, she finds Hatsumomo having sex with her boyfriend, Koichi, whom she is not supposed to be seeing. When caught, Hatsumomo lies, framing Chiyo for stealing and attempting to run away, but Chiyo tells Mother of Hatsumomo's affair with Koichi. Mother forbids Hatsumomo from seeing Koichi again, with everyone barred from leaving the okiya at night except to attend work engagements. The next night, Chiyo sneaks out to meet Satsu and accidentally falls off a rooftop, causing serious injury. Mother stops investing in Chiyo's geisha training and instead makes her a servant to the okiya to pay off her debts. Mother then tells Chiyo that her parents have died; Chiyo never sees Satsu again.

One day, while crying on a riverbank, Chiyo is noticed by Chairman Ken Iwamura and his geisha companions. He buys her a shaved ice dessert and gives her his handkerchief and some money. Inspired by his act of kindness, Chiyo resolves to become a geisha so that she might become a part of the Chairman's life.

Several years later, Pumpkin debuts as a maiko, an apprentice geisha, under Hatsumomo's tutelage. Shortly afterwards, Chiyo is taken under the wing of Mameha, who persuades Mother to reinvest in Chiyo's geisha training, promising to pay her twice over after her debut. Chiyo becomes a maiko and receives the name of Sayuri. Mameha introduces Sayuri to the Chairman and Toshikazu Nobu - the Chairman's business partner - at a sumo match. Nobu takes a liking to her, though Sayuri seeks the company of the Chairman. To increase her popularity, Mameha orchestrates a bidding war for Sayuri's mizuage (the right to take her virginity), after which she will become a full geisha.

Hatsumomo starts spreading rumors that Sayuri has already lost her virginity, making it difficult to secure bidders. To counter this, Mameha arranges for Sayuri to perform as the lead dancer for a popular dance performance, enraging Hatsumomo with jealousy. Sayuri's performance attracts the attention of several men, including the Baron, Mameha's danna. When Dr. Crab, a potential bidder, congratulates Sayuri at the after party, she convinces him not to listen to Hatsumono's lies. The Baron later invites her to come to his estate for a cherry blossom-viewing party. When the Baron presents a kimono to Sayuri in private, he undresses her against her will, but does not go any further.

Sayuri's mizuage is won with a record-breaking bid of fifteen thousand yen. Mother decides to name her as her adopted daughter and the heiress to the okiya, crushing Pumpkin and enraging Hatsumomo. Sayuri then finds out that the highest bidder was the Baron, and that Mameha gave the bid to Dr. Crab, not wishing the Baron to have Sayuri. When returning home from the mizuage ceremony, Sayuri finds a drunken Hatsumomo in her room, where she has found the Chairman's handkerchief. The two fight and a gas lantern is knocked over, igniting a fire. The okiya is saved and Hatsumomo is banished from Gion. Her fate is left uncertain.

Sayuri's successful career is cut short by the outbreak of World War II. In 1944, working geisha districts are closed, with many of Gion's geisha evacuated to cities which are primary bomb targets. The Chairman sends Mameha to work as an assistant for a doctor, while he sends Sayuri to the countryside, where she works for a kimono maker. After the war ends, Nobu asks Sayuri to help him impress an American Colonel who could approve funding for their business. Sayuri reunites with Mameha, who reluctantly agrees to help Sayuri impress the Colonel. Sayuri is reacquainted with Pumpkin, who is now working as an escort. Sayuri travels with Nobu, the Chairman, Mameha, Pumpkin, and the American soldiers to the Amami Islands. The Colonel propositions Sayuri, but she rejects him. Nobu confronts Sayuri after seeing the proposition and confesses his desire to become her danna. Sayuri devises a plan to have Nobu catch her being intimate with the Colonel, hoping that he will lose his feelings for her, and enlists Pumpkin's help to do so. However, Pumpkin's resentment of Sayuri leads her to bring the Chairman instead. The Chairman storms off. When Sayuri confronts her, Pumpkin coldly tells her that she acted in revenge of Sayuri's adoption. Sayuri decides to give up on her pursuit for the Chairman.

After returning to Miyaki, Sayuri receives a summons from a nearby tea-house. Expecting Nobu, Sayuri is instead surprised to see the Chairman, who confesses his feelings for her and that he always knew of her identity, but refused to interfere with Nobu's feelings out of respect. The Chairman also tells Sayuri of having organized for Mameha to become her mentor. Sayuri confesses her love to the Chairman and they share a kiss, before taking a quiet stroll through the teahouse garden.





Shortly after the book's release in 1997, the filming rights to the book were purchased for $1 million by Red Wagon's Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher, backed by Columbia Pictures. The following year, Steven Spielberg planned to make Memoirs of a Geisha as the follow-up to Saving Private Ryan, bringing in his company DreamWorks. Spielberg's Dreamworks partner David Geffen attempted to persuade him not to take the project, feeling it was "not good enough for him".[5] Prior to Spielberg's involvement, the film was planned to be shot in Japan in the Japanese language.[6] By 2002, with Spielberg having postponed production for A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can, Spielberg stepped down from directorial duties to only produce.

Both Wick and Fisher approached Rob Marshall, who was interested in doing a non-musical after Annie and Chicago. This brought a third company into Memoirs of a Geisha, as Marshall was still signed to release his next film through Chicago distributors Miramax.[7][8]

The three leading non-Japanese actresses, including Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li, and Michelle Yeoh, were put through "geisha boot camp" before production commenced, during which they were trained in traditional geisha practices of Japanese music, dance, and tea ceremony. Anthropologist Liza Dalby was also brought in to aid in the production as an advisor,[9] though she later commented that "while the director and producers often asked my opinion on things, most of the time they went ahead and followed their own vision", calling the film a "wasted opportunity" to display geisha society accurately.


The orange gateways at the Fushimi Inari shrine in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto, used in the scene where a young Chiyo runs through them

Production of the film took place from September 29, 2004 to January 31, 2005. It was decided that contemporary Japan looked too modern for a story set in pre- and post-war Japan, meaning that many scenes were filmed on cost-effective soundstages or on location in the United States, primarily California. The majority of the film was shot on a large set built on a ranch in Thousand Oaks, California.[10] Most interior scenes were filmed in Culver City, California at the Sony Pictures Studios lot. Other locations in California included San Francisco, Moss Beach, Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge, Sacramento, Yamashiro's Restaurant in Hollywood, the Japanese Gardens at the Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, Hakone Gardens in Saratoga, and Downtown Los Angeles at the Belasco Theater on Hill Street. Towards the end of production, some scenes were shot in Kyoto, including the Fushimi Inari-Taisha, the head shrine of Inari, located in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto.


One of the tasks faced by sound editors in post-production was improving the English pronunciation of the cast, which in part involved piecing together different dialogue clips from other segments of the film to form missing syllables in the actors' speech, as some only spoke partially phonetic English when performing. The achievement of the sound editors earned the film an Academy Award nomination for Best Achievement in Sound Editing.


In the Western hemisphere, the film received mixed reviews. In China and Japan, reviews were more negative, with some controversy among audience and critics arising from the film's casting and its relationship to Japan's history.

Western box office and reviews[edit]

Memoirs of a Geisha received mixed reviews from Western critics. Illinois' Daily Herald said that the "[s]trong acting, meticulously created sets, beautiful visuals, and a compelling story of a celebrity who can't have the one thing she really wants make Geisha memorable".[11] The Washington Times called the film "a sumptuously faithful and evocative adaption" while adding that "[c]ontrasting dialects may remain a minor nuisance for some spectators, but the movie can presumably count on the pictorial curiosity of readers who enjoyed Mr. Golden's sense of immersion, both harrowing and [a]esthetic, in the culture of a geisha upbringing in the years that culminated in World War II".[12]

On Rotten Tomatoes the film has an approval rating of 35% based on 164 reviews, with an average rating of 5.40/10; the consensus stated "Less nuanced than its source material, Memoirs of a Geisha may be a lavish production, but it still carries the simplistic air of a soap opera."[13] On Metacritic, the film has a score of 54 out of 100, based on reviews from 38 critics, meaning "mixed or average review."[14] Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave the film a grade "B+" on scale of A to F.[15]

In the United States, the film managed $57 million during its box office run. The film was facing off against King Kong, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Fun with Dick and Jane during the Christmas holiday. On its first week in limited release, the film screening in only eight theaters tallied up an $85,313 per theater average which made it second in highest per theater averages behind Brokeback Mountain for 2005. International gross reached $158 million.[16]

The New Statesman criticized Memoirs of a Geisha's plot, saying that after Hatsumomo leaves, "the plot loses what little momentum it had and breaks down into one pretty visual after another" and says that the film version "abandons the original's scholarly mien to reveal the soap opera bubbling below".[17] The Journal praised Ziyi Zhang, saying that she "exudes a heartbreaking innocence and vulnerablity" but said "too much of the character's yearning and despair is concealed behind the mask of white powder and rouge".[18] London's The Evening Standard compared Memoirs of a Geisha to Cinderella and praised Gong Li, saying that "Li may be playing the loser of the piece but she saves this film" and Gong "endows Hatsumomo with genuine mystery".[19] Eighteen days later, The Evening Standard put Memoirs of a Geisha on its Top Ten Films list.[20] Glasgow's Daily Record praised the film, saying the "geisha world is drawn with such intimate detail that it seems timeless until the war, and with it the modern world comes crashing in".[21]

Casting controversy[edit]

Controversy arose due to the casting of the film, with all three main female roles going to non-Japanese actresses. Ziyi Zhang (Sayuri) and Gong Li (Hatsumomo) both held Chinese citizenship at the time of the film's production (Gong Li became a naturalised Singaporean from 2008 onwards), whereas Michelle Yeoh (Mameha) is an ethnic Chinese from Malaysia. All three were already prominent actresses in Chinese cinema. The film's producers defended the position, stating that the main priorities in casting the three main roles were "acting ability and star power". Director Rob Marshall noted examples such as the Mexican actor Anthony Quinn being cast as a Greek man in Zorba the Greek.[22]

Opinion of the casting in the Asian community was mixed, with some finding the casting of Chinese actresses for Japanese roles offensive in the face of Japan's wartime atrocities in China and mainland Asia.[citation needed] The Chinese government canceled the film's release because of such connections, and a website denounced star Ziyi Zhang as an "embarrassment to China."[23]

In Japan, reception to the film was mixed. Some Japanese expressed offence at the three main female roles being played by Chinese actresses; others took issue with the portrayal of geisha in the film, deeming it inaccurate and Westernised.[24] Japanese cultural expert Peter MacIntosh, who had advised on the film, expressed concern that it had not been made specifically for a Japanese audience, and that anyone knowledgeable about Japanese culture who saw the film would be "appalled".[25] The film garnered only average box office success in Japan, despite being a high budget film about Japanese culture.[26]

Other Asians defended the casting, including the film's main Japanese star Ken Watanabe, who said that "talent is more important than nationality."[27] In defense of the film, Zhang said:

A director is only interested in casting someone he believes is appropriate for a role...regardless of whether someone is Japanese or Chinese or Korean, we all would have had to learn what it is to be a geisha, because almost nobody today knows what that means—not even the Japanese actors on the film. Geisha was not meant to be a documentary. I remember seeing in the Chinese newspaper a piece that said we had only spent six weeks to learn everything and that that was not respectful toward the culture. It's like saying that if you're playing a mugger, you have to rob a certain number of people. To my mind, what this issue is all about, though, is the intense historical problems between China and Japan. The whole subject is a land mine. Maybe one of the reasons people made such a fuss about Geisha was that they were looking for a way to vent their anger.[28]

Film critic Roger Ebert pointed out that the film was made by a Japanese-owned company, and that Gong Li and Ziyi Zhang outgrossed any Japanese actress even in the Japanese box office.[29]

Chinese response to the film[edit]

The film received occasionally hostile responses in Mainland China, with the film being censored and banned by the People's Republic of China. Relations between Japan and Mainland China at the time of the film's release had been particularly tense, owing to the then-Prime Minister of Japan, Junichiro Koizumi, having paid a number of visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine - a shrine specially dedicated to honoring Japan's war dead, including those convicted of war crimes. These visits were denounced by China's foreign ministry as having honored war criminals whose crimes pertained to Japan's actions in China in WW2 specifically. China had also prevented Japan from receiving a seat on the United Nations Security Council in the year of the film's release.[30]

The film's setting of the 1920s and 1940s covers both World War II and the Second Sino-Japanese War, during which time Japan captured and forced thousands of Korean and Chinese women into sexual slavery known as "comfort women" for Japanese military personnel.[31] Various newspapers such as the Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post and the Shanghai Youth Daily expressed fears that the film could be banned by censors, with concerns that the casting of Chinese actresses as geisha could create anti-Japanese sentiment, and stir up resentment surrounding Japan's wartime actions in China - in particular, the use of Chinese women as sex slaves for Japan's occupying forces.[32][33] A different controversy rose with the mentioning of a Japanese soldier that had fought in Manchuria, China, as the geisha introducing the soldier referred to him as a "war hero" in the film.[citation needed]

The film had been originally scheduled to be shown within Mainland China on February 9, 2006; however, the Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television decided to ban the film on February 1, 2006, considering the film "too sensitive" for release, a decision that overturned the film's approval for screening in November.[34]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Academy Awards[35]

Golden Globe

National Board of Review

  • Won: Best Supporting Actress (Gong Li)

Satellite Awards

  • Won: Outstanding Screenplay, Adapted (Robin Swicord)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Motion Picture, Drama
  • Nominated: Outstanding Director (Rob Marshall)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama (Ziyi Zhang)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Actress in a Supporting Role, Drama (Gong Li)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Art Direction & Production Design (John Myhre)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Cinematography (Dion Beebe)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Costume Design (Colleen Atwood)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Original Score (John Williams)

BAFTA Awards

  • Won: The Anthony Asquith Award for Achievement in Film Music (John Williams)
  • Won: Cinematography (Dion Beebe)
  • Won: Costume Design (Colleen Atwood)
  • Nominated: Best Actress in a Leading Role (Ziyi Zhang)
  • Nominated: Production design
  • Nominated: Make Up and Hair

Screen Actors Guild Awards

  • Nominated: Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role (Ziyi Zhang)

NAACP Image Awards

  • Nominated: Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture (Ziyi Zhang)

Soundtrack album[edit]

Memoirs of a Geisha OST
Soundtrack album by
ReleasedNovember 22, 2005
StudioRoyce Hall
Sony Pictures Studios
LabelSony Classical
ProducerJohn Williams

The Memoirs of a Geisha official soundtrack featured Yo-Yo Ma performing the cello solos, as well as Itzhak Perlman performing the violin solos. The music was composed and conducted by John Williams, who won his fourth Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score.

  1. "Sayuri's Theme" – 1:31
  2. "The Journey to the Hanamachi" – 4:06
  3. "Going to School" – 2:42
  4. "Brush on Silk" – 2:31
  5. "Chiyo's Prayer" – 3:36
  6. "Becoming a Geisha" – 4:32
  7. "Finding Satsu" – 3:44
  8. "The Chairman's Waltz" – 2:39
  9. "The Rooftops of the Hanamachi" – 3:49
  10. "The Garden Meeting" – 2:44
  11. "Dr. Crab's Prize" – 2:18
  12. "Destiny's Path" – 3:20
  13. "A New Name... A New Life" – 3:33
  14. "The Fire Scene and the Coming of War" – 6:48
  15. "As the Water..." – 2:01
  16. "Confluence" – 3:42
  17. "A Dream Discarded" – 2:00
  18. "Sayuri's Theme and End Credits" – 5:06


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  2. ^ "Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)". Turner Classic Movies. Archived from the original on June 16, 2018. Retrieved June 6, 2020.
  3. ^ Golden, Arthur (1997). Memoirs of a Geisha (1st ed.). New York: Knopf. ISBN 978-0375400117.
  4. ^ "Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)". BFI. Retrieved September 28, 2021.
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  6. ^ " Made In America".
  7. ^ Snyder, Gabriel (November 16, 2003). "'Geisha's' elusive charms". Variety.
  8. ^ Fleming, Michael (June 13, 2003). "Inside Move: Marshall to serve 'Geisha'". Variety.
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  10. ^ "The rest of the best". March 6, 2006 – via LA Times.
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  12. ^ "'Geisha' Rises to Exotic Best; Faithful Book Adaptation Portrays Rivalry of Women." The Washington Times December 16, 2005: D08.
  13. ^ "Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved August 25, 2021.
  14. ^ "Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)". Metacritic. Retrieved April 15, 2021.
  15. ^ "MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA (2005) B+". CinemaScore. Archived from the original on December 20, 2018.
  16. ^ "Memoirs of a Geisha". The Numbers: Box Office Data. Retrieved February 25, 2007.
  17. ^ Lyttle, John. "The Eastern Affront: This Depiction of Oppression Is Decorously Polite." New Statesman Jan. 16, 2006: 47.
  18. ^ "Memoirs of a Geisha". The Journal (Newcastle, England) Jan. 13, 2006: 20.
  19. ^ "Dazzled by the Tricks of an Exotic Trade." The Evening Standard (London, England) Jan. 12, 2006: 34.
  20. ^ "Critic's Choice; Top Ten Films." The Evening Standard (London, England) Jan. 30, 2006: 40.
  21. ^ "GLAD TO BE GEISHA; Beautifully Shot and Brilliantly Acted, This Is an Oscar Favourite MEMOIRS OF A GEISH A ***** 12A." Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland) Jan. 13, 2006: 46.
  22. ^ "Geisha film-makers defend casting". BBC News. December 8, 2005. Retrieved May 12, 2010.
  23. ^ "China cancels release of 'Memoirs of a Geisha'". USA Today. February 1, 2006. Retrieved May 12, 2010.
  24. ^ McCurry, Justin (November 29, 2005). "Geisha film incenses Japanese" – via
  25. ^ McCurry, Justin (October 23, 2004). "Japanese on edge over Spielberg's geisha film" – via
  26. ^ "Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) – International Box Office Results – Box Office Mojo".
  27. ^ "Watanabe defends casting in 'Geisha' -". Archived from the original on December 21, 2008.
  28. ^ "Zhang Ziyi at – Interview magazine July 2006". Archived from the original on August 29, 2012. Retrieved October 24, 2012.
  29. ^ Ebert, Roger (December 15, 2005). "Memoirs of a Geisha movie review (2005)". Chicago Sun-Times.
  30. ^ Britannica Online Encyclopaedia/China's Relations with Its Neighbours/Year in Review 2005
  31. ^ World History Connected/Vol.1 No.1/Yoshiko Nozaki: "I'm Here Alive": History, Testimony, and the Japanese Controversy over "Comfort Women" Archived November 4, 2005, at the Wayback Machine.
  32. ^ "– Yahoo! News". Yahoo!.[dead link]
  33. ^ "Lee slates China 'ban' on actress". BBC News. March 20, 2008.
  34. ^ "China bans Memoirs of a Geisha". The Guardian. London. February 1, 2006. Retrieved May 12, 2010.
  35. ^ "The 78th Academy Awards (2006) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved November 20, 2011.

External links[edit]