Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Differing Visions of the Geisha in Marshall and Naruse

(Like my review of The Sheltering Sky, this is a piece that was written for a class of mine. Had I been given critical freedom, this may have read a bit differently.)

Ever since its inception, the geisha has begged to be exotified. One artful, elegant Japanese woman is designed both to delight the senses and summarize the sophisticated charms of her culture. Such an illustrious figure presents a challenge to the art-makers of the world who wish to depict the life of a geisha: how does one pay respect to the beauty of her art without exploiting or overlooking the person behind it? This is a fundamental question that was surely on the minds of Rob Marshall and Mikio Naruse before they directed Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) and Late Chrysanthemums (1954), two notable films about geishas. Though the two films were produced in distinct circumstances – Hollywood of the 21st century and Japan of the postwar era – they both present fascinating, if often considerably separate, visions of the geisha. Experiencing the two films provides immeasurable insights into the public perception of geishas as it varies across hemispheres and throughout history. Late Chrysanthemums views the geisha life as one that is lost and forgotten, leaving real ordinary women behind the faded makeup, whereas Memoirs of a Geisha treats the culture as one made up of larger-than-life icons whose surface appeal is worthy of endless flattery and exaltation.

In order to begin to understand these two works alongside each other, it’s important to frame them within their respective historical and cultural contexts. Memoirs of a Geisha is a big-budget modern drama prepared by the Hollywood movie industry, and as such, is instantly a product designed for maximal entertainment value to be consumed on a vast scale. Considering its exotic subject matter, the film is necessarily a vision of the East as seen through a Western gaze, and thus is highly susceptible to claims of Americanized reductionism and Orientalism, as is frequently the case with big Hollywood films that attempt to capitalize on the allure of an unfamiliar culture but end up exploiting it instead. Mikio Naruse’s Late Chrysanthemums is on the absolute opposite end of the spectrum, a film produced in Japan for Japanese people. It’s a film that does not attempt to exotify its own culture, indeed often presenting it in all its intimate bleakness. Inevitably, these two exclusive filmmaking scenarios bear some very dissimilar results, but the congruencies are also quite interesting.

Memoirs of a Geisha is the creation of Rob Marshall, an A-list Hollywood director with large-scale credentials, including the commercial successes Chicago (2002) and Nine (2009). He has become well known for his sweeping musicals, and although Memoirs of a Geisha takes the form of an epic melodrama, the lavish spectacle that is his forte clearly carries over. He applies this grandiose visual style to the tale of Chiyo (Ziyi Zhang), a peasant girl from a fishing village who is sold at an early age with her sister Satsu to a geisha house in the Gion district of Kyoto, Japan. Once Satsu is exiled from the house and delivered to a brothel instead, Chiyo finds herself a victim of the cruel hypocrisies and haughty authoritarianism of the older geishas, all while the antagonistic Hatsumoto (Li Gong) forms a deep jealousy towards her undeniable beauty. Chiyo is immediately a lonely soul for the first third of the film, but the broader narrative follows the entire trajectory of her young life, culminating in her widespread approval as one of Japan’s most prized, sought-after geishas. Towards the end however, Marshall documents the unexpected shattering of this lifestyle due to the onslaught of World War II, showing how it deeply affects both her personal growth and her legitimacy as an artist and entertainer.

Late Chrysanthemums essentially picks up where Memoirs of a Geisha left off chronologically, despite being made fifty years before. Mikio Naruse was a near antithesis of Rob Marshall due to what was really an unfortunate case of cultural invisibility, having been regularly overshadowed by cinematic giants like Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujiro Ozu. Regardless, his films were always sensitive treatises on the difficulties of ordinary life in the modern world, and this awareness was what made Late Chrysanthemums such an apt chronicle of the drastic societal transformations wrought by the war, with the use of geishas being an effective foil through which to evoke lamentation and nostalgia. His film investigates the everyday lives of four workaday women in Tokyo, all of whom were once fellow geishas. Central in this quartet is Kin (Haruko Sugimura), a well-off moneylender who has a financial connection with each of the supporting women: she was a lead investor in the small bar co-run by Nobu (Sadako Sawamura) and waits impatiently for long overdue payments from Tomi (Y√Ľko Mochizuki) and Tamae (Chikako Hosokawa), who occupy the same house together. None of these women are entirely stable, either financially, emotionally, or both.

Being a Tokyo-based production, the film is quick not to gloss over any of the devastating realities of the postwar landscape, remaining aware of their dissonance from the geisha era. The troubling effects of the weak economy and job market can be felt obliquely in the personal lives of the four protagonists. Tomi and Tamae both incessantly bemoan the paths of their ungrateful children, who have married and moved away and left their mothers to sustain themselves solely on menial jobs. Kin too witnesses a severe lack of human connection despite her steady source of income, which she seems to be unable to find a purpose for. Instead, she is consumed by the fond memory of her past lover Tabe (Ken Uehara), who arrives late in the film only to prove equally miserable in the face of the hard times. This sorrowful emotional register provides a sharp contrast to the heyday of the geisha witnessed in Marshall’s film and only reminisced upon periodically by the women in Naruse’s. In one melancholy scene when Tomi is fixing up Tamae’s hair and praising her for her past beauty, the poignancy of the moment is deflated by the fact that both of them are stubbornly drunk and otherwise rambling about their estranged children. The uncertain present regularly interrupts any mentions of the idyllic past.

Memoirs of a Geisha shares the overall gloomy mood of Late Chrysanthemums, yet does so in broader, more overtly melodramatic strokes. For the entirety of the film leading up to Chiyo’s recognition as an outstanding geisha, the Gion district is literally flooded by melancholy, with nearly constant torrential rain accenting - in a rather traditional dramatic move - her troublesome encounters. The lead geishas treat her with hostility as a meager servant, and the older Hatsumoto takes every opportunity to make Chiyo look traitorous, at one point falsely exposing her as a runaway when it was really her who was causing mischief outside of the geisha house. It is not until Chiyo is discovered by Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) - Hatsumoto’s enduring rival - that she manages to transcend her rough upbringing and aim for a more significant identification as a geisha, landing her romantic sights on the upper-class Chairman in the process.

What is ultimately occurring here is a traditional dramatic format in Hollywood, a way of clearly identifying each character in accordance with one particular trait. Chiyo is the saintly protagonist rising from rags to riches, The Chairman is the object of romantic interest associated with sophistication and wealth, Mameha is the clear-cut mentor incapable of guiding Chiyo in the wrong direction, and Hatsumoto is the feverish villain responsible for much of her misery. These characters rarely make a move that would jeopardize their fully formed persona; instead, every one of their actions seems a device layered with dramatic import to help guide Chiyo’s personal journey. This kind of narrative mechanism is very writer-friendly, for it allows the assumption that each individual in the film is a pawn to be played with in order to reach an overarching significance. In the case of Memoirs of a Geisha, this significance is that everyone, like Chiyo, is in control of their own fate, that personal feelings are more reliable than the allure of external pressures, just as Rob Marshall and screenwriter Robin Swicord are the sole dictators of the path that their film will take despite being based off of an existing novel by Arthur Golden.

Late Chrysanthemums also takes literature as its source material (Fumiko Hayashi’s “Bangiku”, translated as “Late Chrysanthemums”), but it is not nearly handled as manipulatively. If Kin had existed in Memoirs of a Geisha, Marshall would likely have interpreted her money lust as an inherently negative trait, thus positioning her as the antagonist. For Naruse, this is no area for judgment. He sees it as a natural reflection of the distressing economic times, acknowledging money as something that has to be at the root of every conversation for the general welfare of society even if it means endangering human relationships in the process. Kin can be greedy and brash one moment and warm and tender the next, such as when she repeatedly turns a cherished letter from Tabe over in her hands in longing. Amidst the turmoil and loneliness, Naruse admires any act that suggests human camaraderie, explaining why even during moments of deep melancholy there is an underlying sense of earthbound comedy. The film allows for these simultaneous contradictions in character personalities and dramatic presentation to more closely approximate the flow of everyday life, in which actions are not as black and white as they are in the operatic Memoirs of a Geisha.

In this way, Naruse emerges as a social realist whereas Marshall works in more idealistic territory. His film is interested in documenting and combating the social inadequacy as it happens, literally reflecting what he sees around him in the most truthful manner possible. In a way, it works as a social critique. It matters less that these women were once geishas than it does that their realities were once grander and more luxurious. They are artifacts from a bygone era when elegance and art could be focused on because money was not an issue. While Naruse values the vitality of these women’s memories, he also suggests that in order for them to survive they must maintain a sharper focus on the present. Because Memoirs of a Geisha’s characters exist within the time of Japanese cultural prosperity, the stakes - while more lavish and dramatic - are not as high as those in Late Chrysanthemums. It is only when World War II arrives that the characters must reevaluate their means of endurance, as their previous ways of life are thoroughly shattered. One can imagine Chiyo proceeding to become Kin in Late Chrysanthemums; the final time we see her she is still wistfully connected to the Chairman, and the first time we see Kin she is still pining about her old flame with Tabe. It’s as if the war completely stripped the romanticism right away from the geisha.

This notion is reflected in the distinct visual styles of both of the films. A winner for Best Cinematography at the 78th Academy Awards, Dion Beebe’s work in Memoirs of a Geisha is undoubtedly sumptuous and elaborate, with each frame displaying careful precision by way of lighting, mise-en-scene and composition. Marshall positions each shot so that it is a visual treat unto itself. Rarely does an individual frame seem a particular point of emphasis because of the steady stream of pictorial grace. This democratic stylishness underlines the fact that this is the exotic East as seen through a Western lens. Nothing appears mundane, and everything, even the wicked women who scorn Chiyo, is fair game for beautifying. Naruse’s visual style is similarly democratic and without inflection, but in an utterly different way and for a separate purpose. The images in Late Chrysanthemums are uniformly prosaic and meant to elicit the mundane rhythms of daily life. It is a traditional formalism that does not call attention to itself, instead directing the concentration on the quietly powerful performances and the casual events of the story.

The two film’s respective modes of stylization also extend to their costume and set designs. The women’s wardrobes in Memoirs of a Geisha are remarkably ornamented, with generously embroidered kimonos, delicately applied makeup to add an aura of mystery, and wildly showy hairdos. They are walking embodiments of overstatement, and because of this their attire often cloaks their personalities, lending the film the texture of a prolonged fashion show. How much of this is an authentic replication of the kind of embellishment exercised by real-life geishas and how much is a subtle stretching of the truth remains unclear, but given Marshall’s utter lack of experience with pre-1940’s era Japan, it can be assumed that he took liberties to hyperbolize them to an extent. Everything in their proximity is equally extravagant and caressed with soft, low light, often in warm shades of red and green (a highly exotic color scheme ever since Eugene Delacroix’s Algerian paintings verified it). Even the more overtly tragic scenes remain gorgeous in both color and set design, such as in the final act when the war has ravaged the country.

The women’s clothing in Late Chrysanthemums, on the other hand, indicates something far removed from the eccentricity of the geishas that they once were. Now garbed in neutral, more commonplace kimonos, their external appearances still manage to be as telling as they were in the geisha era, only this time they hint at the repose and sorrow of their current lives. Fittingly, their homes are drab and unfurnished, which implies both emotional emptiness and a financial inability to decorate. Outside, Tokyo has become an impersonal metropolitan center filled with a new generation of women dressed in tight sweaters and trousers, a modern way that allows little room for the four old-fashioned women at the center of the story. Such a generational discord is potently felt in one of the closing scenes of the film when Tamae tries an imitation of the Marilyn Monroe gait in front of Tomi, only to immediately mock her own foolishness. Beauty in the modern world, they sadly realize, is no longer associated as closely with the geisha, but rather with the international celebrity.

All of the prominent emotion that this subtly poignant scene withholds is on display in the grim but finally sentimental resolution of Memoirs of a Geisha, when Chiyo is left largely to her own devices, with no use for the skill she has so patiently honed. Regardless of the differing levels of restraint in the two films though, they do share the same sense of lamentation and loss of the ephemeral golden age of the geisha, as well as a genuine sadness about the war that drove it out. And they both view the geisha custom as one that has a substantial impact on the individuals adhering to it, either guiding their lives unsteadily, as in the case of Chiyo, or providing unshakably fond memories for the four late chrysanthemums in Naruse’s film. Of course, Memoirs of a Geisha may continue to ring hollow as a superficial Hollywood melodrama, but the evidence it provides towards the enduring exotic impact of the geisha culture is as compelling as any of the carefully crafted scenes in the moving Late Chrysanthemums.


Stephen said...

Very interesting, Carson - a proper, well-considered piece of criticism.

For me, Mizoguchi's films about geisha are the greatest.

Carson Lund said...

Thanks, Stephen. I thought I about Mizoguchi's films, but I hadn't actually seen his geisha ones yet and Late Chrysanthemums sufficed.

FOXX said...

Thanks you ! I love the geisha of Japan. Vote for you ♥