Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden is a fictional account of the life of a successful geisha in Gion, Japan during the early to mid 1950s. Golden wrote this novel after interviewing Mineko Iwasaki, who is said to be the most famous geisha in Japan until her early retirement at the age of 29. The story tells of how a girl named Chiyo, who began with very humble beginnings as a poor fisherman’s daughter, became an honored and successful geisha in Japan. Not too many years after the girl became a geisha and acquired her geisha name, Sayuri, World War II broke out and the geisha district of Gion was closed down only to be opened again after the war ended. More importantly, the novel tells of the romantic feelings that motivated every of Chiyo’s moves from the moment that she met the Chairman to her death.
The story of this geisha is a very compelling one and left me with the feeling that when entering a geisha district of Japan that one is transported into the past or at the very least into a different world that follows a different set of rules. Men could leave their wives and come enjoy a guilt-free night in the company of another woman, which could occasionally lead to more. A geisha is not a prostitute but seen as an artist. Her skills include conversation, joke telling, game playing, dancing, instrument playing, singing and all while being a master of seduction. Similar to perhaps a cruise ship director or a hibachi chef, when in their company you may play games or receive a meal all while being entertained by your host (That’s the best comparison I can think of. Please leave a comment if you can think of a better one).
The novel was based on interviews that took place and were recorded between Arthur Golden and Mineko Iwasaki. After the book was published in Japan, Iwasaki sued Golden for breach of her confidentially contract and defamation of character. Apparently, she had received death threats even for revealing the identities of some of her clients. Golden and Iwasaki settled out of court but then later on Mineko Iwasaki went on to write her own true account of her life which was entitled Geisha, A Life (in the U.S. or Geisha of Gion in the U.K.). I am interested to read her account to discover the differences between the fiction and the true-life account.
The movie, Memoirs of a Geisha, is a favorite of our family in part because my husband, Chris, minored in Asian studies in college and so has an in depth knowledge and interest in Japanese culture. Also, aside from the story which is heart breaking and beautiful, the movie is filled with beautiful costumes and beautiful scenes. In 2006, the movie was nominated for six Academy Awards and won the awards for art direction, cinematography and set design. I enjoyed very much the acting and had the thought that you could give any beautiful Asian woman bluish/grayish contacts (these blue/gray eyes were what helped Sayuri to stand out among the other geisha) and her beauty would double. Many people were disappointed that, for the most part, Chinese women were cast as these beautiful Japanese women.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the movie stuck fairly closely to the book, which was almost an eighteen-hour listen. I explained to my husband that what was lost between the book and the movie was mainly details that explained deeper the daily life of a geisha. Some of the events from the book were compounded for time’s sake and the book went on past the movie’s end to let us know what the happily-ever-after looked like for this geisha but altogether a majority of the book was touched on in the movie.
I did enjoy listening to this book and not only recommend the book to anyone who enjoyed the 2005 film but also to readers who have an interest in history, specifically Japanese history and her culture. I also highly recommend the film as it gives a very beautiful account of the book and Japanese culture.