Memoir of a myth perpetuates cliche

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Memoir of a myth perpetuates cliche

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Japan is an ancient, beautiful, complicated country. Seeing the temples at Nikko, a mountain retreat north of Tokyo, was what convinced me to study in Asia. Living in Kyoto for a year and seeing countless other places said to embody the “Japanese spirit” was an awe-inspiring and startling experience. Clearly, I’m hooked.
It’s a testament to the power of Japan as a modern myth; like Egypt in the 19th century, Japan has captured the modern Western imagination like a skilled hypnotist for over 100 years. Since the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese elite has consciously nurtured the idea of a mysterious, exotic and ancient Japan in order to hold their country together in the face of Western modernization.
So there’s probably something pathetic about Westerners who, like me, fall for the illusion. The makers of “The Last Samurai” were in that group, and so are those behind “Memoirs of a Geisha.” The difference is that, though deeply flawed, “The Last Samurai” was not just a geeky pursuit of the Japan myth; it was also a convincing lament for the casualties of modernity. “Memoirs of a Geisha,” on the other hand, wallows in its own attempted exoticism, without any discernable point. The result is a film with beautiful cinematography put in the service of a story and characters that are laughably thin.
The narrator is Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo, Ziyi Zhang), a girl sold by her debtor father to a geisha house, or okiya, in Kyoto, a fitting beginning for an Asian Cinderella. After several escape attempts, her mistress suspends her training and condemns her to a life as a servant girl. However, a chance meeting with a man known only as the chairman (Ken Watanabe, who else?) inspires her young heart to pursue him, and years later neighborhood intrigue gives her the chance to become the greatest geisha of all time.
Having an American movie set in a foreign country with all the dialogue in English is an unfortunate but bearable convention of cinema. One would hope the audience is too wrapped up in the story to notice the language, but “Geisha” destroys any suspension of disbelief with a garbled mix of languages. The actors speak to each other in thickly accented English randomly peppered with Japanese words and honorifics.
This linguistic mess just makes the already hokey dialogue even more stilted. Explaining the ritual auctioning of an apprentice geisha’s virginity, Chiyo’s geisha teacher (Michelle Yeoh) launches into a description of men’s eels that like to visit women’s caves. This was the only line that actually made me convulse with laughter, but there are awkward character interactions peppered throughout.
“Memoirs of a Geisha,” with its slow-moving plot, robotic acting and frightfully campy faux-Japanese script, embodies all the Western cliches of Japan rather than trying to overcome or explain them. Real Japan is far more surprising, fascinating and dangerous than this. Fans of the book should stick to literature. A good starting point would be Saikaku Ihara’s “The Life of an Amorous Woman,” which has ups and downs, tragedy and humor, and what “Memoirs” the film lacks the most: realistic human emotion.


Memoirs of a Geisha
Drama / English
145 min.
Opens Thursday


by Ben Applegate
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