4.0 out of 5 stars Mean girls
Apparently catty girls fighting over a popular guy knows neither the boundaries of time nor place nor social status. “Geisha in Rivalry” could just as easily be a hot new teen film, starring Lindsay Lohan as the naive new girl being manipulated and preyed upon by the more cynical seniors. Even when set against the elegance of the flower and willow world, these women of the arts are still just ordinary people inside, with hopes and ambitions and disappointments just like everyone else.
And that really is the charm of this book. The geisha here are just allowed to be people, and interact in a regular old-fashioned love/rival story, rather than serving as some great symbol of refined and mysterious Japan. There is almost no emphasis put on the job of the geisha, the endless hours of training, the various roles in the geisha house and the extravagance of rare mockingbird-poop make-up that gives them a special sheen. Instead, they are just human beings doing a job, not all of them happy with it, not all of them good at it, but all of them determined to make some go at happiness, by hook or by crook. Author Kafu Nagai has put forth a story that is far more Jane Austen than Kawabata Yasunari, more light-hearted romp than heavy-hitting classic.
The basic story has Komayo arriving on the Tokyo Shimbashi geisha scene, returning after a short break when she was married are taken to the countryside. Her husband dead and her marriage over, she returns to the only work she knows. Unknowingly stealing a client from another geisha, the established and imperious Rikiji, she sets herself in a position of retaliation, and the gears start slowly working against her. Others move about the scene, like Hanasuke, the second-place girl content to be in the background but still looking after her own interests, or the slutty Ranka about whom it is gossiped that she is little more than a prostitute painted like a geisha but is still very popular with the male customers. The prize for all involved is the handsome and popular actor Segawa, a somewhat fickle man who is content to watch the game unfold and see who emerges the winner.
The translation of “Geisha in Rivalry” is a little outdated, but does a great job of keeping the active and fun spirit of the original language. A few odd choices were made, like literally translating “maiko” as “dancing girl” instead of leaving it as it is or using the more common “apprentice geisha”, but none of this interferes with the story. A short book at a little over 200 pages, it is still a great read and a refreshing perspective for anyone wanting to read about geisha, or just get involved in a fun catty story of a couple of pretty gals maneuvering for the top guy.