The Geisha

5.0 out of 5 stars Memoirs of Momowaka
The Geisha

Anyone who has seen Memoirs of a Geisha should have to watch this film for balance. “The Geisha” (Japanese title, “Yokiro,” which is the name of the geisha house), is a true look behind the white make-up and fancy silks of the flower-and-willow world, and into the people who practice the profession. It isn’t elegant or pretty. Geisha are like ballet dancers who exude grace and beauty while hiding bruised and damaged feet under dainty pink sandals.

The story follows Momowaka (Ikegami Kimiko, House), the daughter of a female-procurer and his geisha lover. Her mother was murdered when Momowaka was a child, and her father (Ogata Ken, Vengeance Is Mine) sold her to the Yokiro geisha house when she was twelve. Under the harsh tutelage of the Mistress of Yokiro Momowaka has grown to become the top geisha in the most famous geisha house in Western Japan. She is perfect in form and figure, but empty inside and cold like a statue. Momowaka frustrates her patrons who find that although they can rent her body they cannot touch her heart. Her father, a blunt and hard dealer in flesh, is neither a good man nor a bad one. He sells his daughter to a geisha house and his underage lover to a brothel with little regret, but at the same time he has single-handedly protected Yokiro from the influence of the yakuza gangsters for years. He has kept the geisha district a haven for pleasure-seekers, but like everyone in the district, he is getting older and his enemies are getting bolder. Even timeless traditions cannot carry on forever.

As you can see by the DVD box, “The Geisha” has won more awards than there are room to print. The Japanese Academy’s 1984 winner for Best Director, Best Actor, Best Cinematography and five other Academy Awards. It is, needless to say, a great film. Director Gosha Hideo (The Wolves) is one of the greats of Japanese cinema, and “The Geisha” is one of his best films. He trademarks are everywhere, like vicious fight scenes accompanied by uplifting music, or a slow burning plot that explodes in the final scenes.

There are so many scenes I loved in this film. There is a great bar scene, where a group of geisha share the establishment with a group of prostitutes. Although lower of the social scale, the prostitutes are wild and free, and can drink and dance the Charleston, while the geisha are constrained by their position. The envy mixed with disgust is palatable. I loved how “The Geisha” takes place in Koichi, on the island of Shikoku rather than the more famous Gion district in Kyoto. There was a time when no major city was without its pleasure quarters, and it is a nice reminder that Kyoto does not have a monopoly on geisha.

As always, Animeigo has done a remarkable job with a remarkable film. Their dual translation, showing cultural notes along with the dialog, is necessary for the complex relationships of the pleasure quarters, where everyone is “daddy” or “big sister” or “mamma” or “lord.”


The Secret Life of Geisha

4.0 out of 5 stars A biased but interesting documentary

The Secret Life of Geisha

“The Secret Life of Geisha” is not going to surprise or amaze anyone who has done a bit of research on Geisha, say by reading Liza Dalby’s book “Geisha” or Mineko Iwasaki’s autobiography “Geisha : A Life.” However, to those uninitiated who still believe that Geisha are some sort of high-class prostitute, then perhaps a secret or two might be unveiled.

This DVD is a pretty standard A & E presentation, with interesting interviews and stimulating visual images. The approach seems to very much be “How Westerners approach Geisha” rather than “How Japanese approach Geisha,” as the majority of people interviewed seem to be Westerners such as Liza Dalby, Arthur Golden and western patrons of Geisha. Granted, Liza Dalby deserves to be interviewed on any such presentation, but it did come off a little bit too much like an add for Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” a book of dubious authenticity. Although he was used as a primary source, there was no mention of Mineko Iwasaki’s lawsuit against Golden for mis-representing her life story in his book.

The nicest thing about a video such as this, as opposed to a book, is the ability to see the costumes and beauty of Geisha in living color, moving around in kimono and dancing and playing their instruments. Geisha are very visual, and a video brings this out better than a book. Susan Sarandon’s narration was a bit distracting, and I would have preferred a Japanese narrator, as well as subtitling of the Geisha rather than over-dubbing.

Also missing from the video is that, in modern Japan, women also attend Geisha parties, with the staff of a school perhaps hiring a Geisha and a few Maiko to entertain both genders during a particularly special occasion. The only time I have been to a Geisha party has been mixed-gendered, and it is not unusual in modern Japan.

Still, with few videos of this sort around, for all it’s flaws “The Secret Life of Geisha” is worth watching by anyone who is interested in Geisha. Just don’t use it as your primary source of information regarding this fascinating world.

Yoshiwara: Geishas, Courtesans, and the Pleasure Quarters of Old Tokyo


5.0 out of 5 stars Lust will not keep. Something must be done about it

It is amazing to me that a place like the Yoshiwara actually existed. An island of sensual pleasure surrounded on all sides by a moat, the only entrance way being through the guarded gates. At the gates, all weapons and social status were checked, and inside was a different realm where the only significant status was the amount of coin you carried, where peasant could pass drinking cups to a lord on one side and a priest on the other, and everything you could see was for sale; it was only a matter of negotiating the price. When you hear stories of the Yoshiwara, if you are a moralist you are filled with deep disgust, but if you tend to the hedonistic side of life you are filled with a bitter envy that such a paradise no longer exists.

Authors Stephen and Ethel Longstreet seem to fall somewhat in between the two sides. Longtime collectors and commentators on art (Stephen Longstreet wrote the various “Drawings of…” Master Draughtsman Series , such as Drawings of Raphael and Drawings of Goya ) they amassed a collection of ukiyo-e woodblock prints dealing with the Nightless City of the Yoshiwara, where the finest artists of Japan made their home.

Written in 1970, “Yoshiwara: Geishas, Courtesans, and the Pleasure Quarters of Old Tokyo” compiles all that the Longstreets have learned during their collecting, which includes manuscripts and tourist guides written during the height of the Yoshiwara. As collectors of erotica, the Longstreets seem to have a hedonistic streak themselves, although the language of the book is tinged with words like “perversions” and “sins,” one senses that they admired more than condemned the society that created and approved of an island whose sole permanent inhabitants were prostitutes and their keepers.

The Longstreets share their insight, quoting long passages from these ancient manuscripts and tourists guides in an attempt to give you an honest look at the Yoshiwara, what it was and also what it was not. They frame a picture of a country that did not know sexual sin, and where it was felt that indulging in physical pleasure was a natural and necessary part of life but one better contained it on a single island rather running rampant. At a time when every aspect of Japanese society was regulated, the Yoshiwara provided the only zone of freedom of indulgence and expression, where the only rules were a prohibition against violence and failing to pay your bill.

All aspects of the Yoshiwara are presented, from the high-ranked courtesans known as the Oiran, or the “Castle Toppers” for their ability to bring down even a Lord with their beauty and abilities, to the non-prostitute Geisha (both male and female) who provided song and dancing entertainment before sending their guests of the final event of the evening. There is the hard life of the low-ranking simple prostitutes, serving the needs of those who could not afford the veneer and fineries that accompanied a night with an Oiran, and open acceptance of homosexuality and lesbianism, of sex toys and bondage games that seem like modern inventions but are as old as time.

The Longstreets do not hide that most of these women were sold by their parents at a young age into the world of the Yoshiwara, but shows us through their diaries that most of them did not despise their profession. The book details the religious practices and dreams of the lovely ladies, and what they dreamed and gossiped about during the day before the customers came. Concepts like sexual shame and romantic love would not appear later when the Americans came in to Japan and were shocked at the openness of what they saw, and forced the Yoshiwara closed.

In fact, the Western letters home are some of the most interesting parts of this book. They are dripping with superiority and condemnation, but also show a familiarity with the Yoshiwara betraying that they were more than simple observers. The biggest difference between the Western societies and Japan was the façade of “morality,” where one would condemn in public the very thing that one did in private. Times have not changed very much.

I loved reading “Yoshiwara: Geishas, Courtesans, and the Pleasure Quarters of Old Tokyo.” The Longstreets approach is one that is half-scholar, half-ribald storyteller and the mix is just right for the subject. There is probably a more in-depth and scholarly analysis of the citizens of Yoshiwara I have no doubt, but few that are as readable and fun.

And just in case you couldn’t tell, I fall firmly in the camp of those filled with bitter, bitter envy…

Geisha in Rivalry


4.0 out of 5 stars Mean girls

Geisha in Rivalry (Tuttle Classics)

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.

A Geisha’s Journey: My Life As a Kyoto Apprentice


5.0 out of 5 stars Portrait of a geisha as a young woman,

A Geisha’s Journey: My Life As a Kyoto Apprentice

Geisha are intriguing, enticing, and ultimately…frustrating. Enticing because there is something almost ethereally and sublimely beautiful about the painted white faces, shimmering kimonos and sheen of elegance; about the very concept of a woman who is trained to be a perfect artist and companion. Frustrating, because books like these are the closest most of us are likely to get.

The world of the geisha is closed. Not by distance, however. One could live in Japan for a very long time and never be granted access, and indeed most Japanese people have never seen an actual geisha much less been entertained by one. It is a world of wealth and connections that one must be invited into. They are a symbol of the country, but an elusive and vanishing one. In modern times, the geisha have “exclusived” themselves out of business. People want to see them, want to share in the tradition, but the entrance fee is too high, and rather than lower the prices and become “cheap”, the geisha would rather just die out.

This is why a book like “A Geisha’s Journey” is such a treasure. Aside from being a brilliant photo book (and it is brilliant), it offers a glimpse into the mind of the type of girl who would struggle though the long years of training and separation from society in order to preserve a valuable tradition and struggle against the unstoppable tide of modernity. To be a geisha is to live in the past, perfecting ancient dances, using outdated language, living in old-fashioned clothing…all for a slowly vanishing audience.

This geisha in question is a girl named Ruriko who decided at age 15 that she wanted to be a maiko. A Japanese girl growing up in China, she had always cherished her Japanese heritage more than other children her age, and she was constantly reminded of her “Japaneseness” while living in the foreign country. So she moved from her parents into the hanamachi district of Kyoto, and was re-named Komomo (“Little Peach”) and began her training.

Photographer Ogino Naoyuki also grew up abroad, in Mexico, which also made him curious about “traditional Japan”. A serendipitous partnership was made in these two, both Japanese, both foreigners in their native country, both seeking their roots through art and tradition. Ogino photographed Komomo over the years, recording her transformation from awkward novice maiko to full-fledged and confident geiko. Ogino has an eye for the flower and willow world, and he captures all of its mysterious beauty. Komomo, who supplies the text, is equally open with her life and thoughts, her journey along the way including the times she wanted to give up and live a normal life.

There are many books on geisha out there, but there are few that are so intimate and personal. My favorite photograph is on page 106, which shows Komomo with her hair freshly cut. No make-up, no mystery; just the regular girl underneath it all, who vanishes every night to become a magical creature of paper lanterns and tea houses and old Japan.

Maiko Haaaan!!!


5.0 out of 5 stars Onizuka will stop at nothing!

“Maiko Haaaan!!!” delivers on two levels. Not only is it a highly entertaining screwball love comedy, but it is also one of the most authentic geisha-themed films I have ever seen. People wanting to know more about the Flower and Willow world would do far better watching this than Hollywood fantasies like Memoirs of a Geisha or My Geisha.

Pure over-the-top comedy delivered as only the Japanese can, the story follows four people, Onizuka Kimihiko (Abe Sado), Naito Kiichiro (Tsutsumi Shinichi), Osawa Fujiko (Shibasaki Kou) and Komoko (Koide Saori). Two guys and two girls. As Shakespeare said “the course of true love never did run smooth.” An understatement at best.

Tokyo-born Onizuka is obsessed with geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha), and has been ever since he first saw them on a school trip to Kyoto. The only reason he is together with his current girlfriend, Fujiko, is because he believes that she was born in Kyoto. Onizuka also runs a geisha/maiko website, where he is in a constant flame-war with someone who knows the geisha world better than Onizuka ever could. Eventually, Onizuka is transferred to the Kyoto offices of his company (a dream come true!) where he finds that money is not enough to open the closed doors of the geisha. His maniacal quest to gain an introduction begins, as well as his quest to win the love of Komoko, one of the newest maiko to debut. Naito, his rival, one-ups him at every chance.

But this little synopsis doesn’t cover even a small portion of the story. Things fly at break-neck speed, as Fujiko comes to Kyoto in order to apprentice as a geisha and win back Onizuka, and meanwhile Onizuka and Naito race each other through challenge after challenge, from professional baseball to blockbuster movies to K-1 Fighting even to being the mayor of Kyoto in an attempt to prove who is the better man and win the top spot in the geisha’s world. Everything moves so fast it is hard to keep up, but then there are punctuating moments of calm and silence that puts meaning into the chaotic frenzy.

Abe Sado (Uzumaki, The Great Yokai War) puts all of his energy into Onizuka, and you are either going to love or hate the character. He does nothing but to the extreme, and will crawl over everyone to reach his goals. Shibasaki Kou (Battle Royale, One Missed Call) is really far too lovely to be the rejected girlfriend Fujiko, but that’s the way it works in this kind of film. Tsutsumi Shinichi (also of “One Missed Call”) is understated and stern, and a perfect foil for Onizuka’s antics. The subplot with Naito and Komoko lends a really nice serious undertone for the film

I absolutely loved “Maiko Haaaan!!!” It had great balance as a film, winning performances from all the actors, and of course lots and lots of nice geisha eye-candy.

The DVD has a few bonus features like “The Making of Maiko Haaaan!!!” and Director & Cast Profiles. Some of the subtitles are a little funky, and I felt the translator tried a little bit too hard in spots to transfer the Japanese into “hip English,” and it comes off as forced and doesn’t carry the same meaning.

Note to the title: “Maiko” is the name for apprentice geisha, and “-han” is the honorific given in the Kyoto dialect, much like “-san” would be for a regular person. Normally, it would be “Maiko-han” but Onizuka never does anything like a regular person.

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