History in the Movies: ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’

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A Gentle Stroll through Japanese Culture

History in the Movies

By Cathy Schultz, Ph.D.

Some films are rapid gallops, sending viewers careening wildly through their plots.

Not “Memoirs of a Geisha.” It’s a slow saunter, a film that takes us by the hand and sedately escorts us through a Japanese culture completely removed from our own.

In fact, it does such a good job of immersing us in the rarefied geisha culture, that it’s somewhat jarring when a few Americans appear on the scene late in the film. Who are these loud creatures, with their slouched posture, their gum chewing and their loose limbs?

But ultimately the Americans are just a minor subplot. This film keeps us focused on the exotic world of the geisha, in their heyday before the Second World War.

Here are answers to some questions viewers may have about the time and the culture.

Q. Little Sayuri is sold into slavery by her parents. Would that actually have happened in 1929?

A. Yes, and it happened fairly often. Professional procurers, pimps if you will, scoured the countryside for pretty little girls-some as young as six or seven-and would offer a hefty sum to “buy” them from their impoverished parents.

The pimps would then take a young girl to Kyoto’s “pleasure quarters” (the geisha district) and sell her as a maid. The geisha house registered the payment for her as a debt against her future earnings as an adult geisha. The debt also included every yen the house subsequently spent to feed, clothe, and school her. And her child labor as a maid earned her nothing.

Q. Did Japanese geisha really speak English?

A. Uh, no. But Americans don’t like subtitles.

Q. Is geisha just a glorified name for a prostitute?

A. Not really, though there’s no Western equivalent for a geisha, so it’s hard to make the distinction. Essentially, geisha were entertainers-artists even-with years of training in singing, dancing and instrument playing.

But part of their training, as the film showed, was in the arts of looking and acting seductively. They were trained to make men feel good, and they were so skilled doing so that men paid huge amounts simply for the privilege of being around them.

Q. So, no sex for sale at all?

A. “We sell our skills, not our bodies,” Sayuri’s mentor tells her.

Well, sort of. In reality, there was some “selling of bodies” going on. As the film shows, lots of money changed hands in the mizuage ritual, when a young apprentice geisha essentially “sold” her virginity to the highest bidder.

It sounds sleazy, and certainly couldn’t have been much fun for the teenage apprentice. But the mizuage ritual was important for her in a couple of ways. If, like Sayuri, her mizuage fetched a high price, her debt to her geisha house could be reduced or even eliminated.

Also, no apprentice could become a full geisha without the mizuage ceremony. The film doesn’t really show it, but after her ritual mizuage, the young geisha immediately began “advertising” her new status as a full-fledged geisha, by wearing her hair, makeup, and kimono in subtly different ways.

Q. How else did geishas make money?

A. From wealthy Japanese men, who paid exorbitant amounts for the honor of having lovely geishas in stunning kimonos surround them at specially arranged geisha parties. A typical evening party would include a number of geisha flitting about, pouring the men’s tea or whiskey, laughing at their jokes, and entertaining them with stories, music, or dancing.

But they didn’t come cheap. The equivalent price today for one evening of entertainment with a few geisha would be around $3,000.

Q. What was a danna?

A. A danna was a geisha’s “patron,” which was a nice way of saying that he kept her as a mistress. A key plot in the film involved which man would end up as danna for the beautiful Sayuri.

The relationship between a geisha and her danna was a more formal arrangement than a Western man would have with a mistress. A mistress can be dumped quicker than you can say “Fatal Attraction.” But a danna typically treated his geisha as a second wife, fathering children with her, and supporting her very comfortably for decades.

Q. When did geisha culture die out?

A. It still exists in Kyoto and a few other places, though geisha numbers are much reduced from their pre-war highs. Fortunately, things have also changed pretty drastically for young apprentice geishas. They’re no longer sold as girls, nor do they slave away for years as indentured servants.

Today’s apprentice geishas live at home and take geisha classes as teenagers, in the same way American girls might take ballet. In fact, geishas today treat it more as an occupation than a lifestyle, often trying it out for a few years before moving on to marriage or to a different job.

Q. Where can I get more information?

A. Try the wonderful book, “Women of the Pleasure Quarters,” by Lesley Downer.

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois. You can reach her through her Web site at www.stfrancis.edu/historyinthemovies