Memoirs of a Geisha is an 1997 novel by Arthur Golden — later adapted into a 2005 film — about the life of a famous geisha, Sayuri (formerly Chiyo), who was sold to a geisha house by her father at a young age to be trained in the profession. One day, she meets a man who becomes her main motivation to pursue a career as a geisha, although she soon starts to realize that he is unobtainable. Meanwhile, Sayuri becomes a pawn in an intrigue between two of the most successful geisha in the district. The plot is set in Japan, mainly in the decades around the Second World War.note Arthur Golden caught a good deal of flak for naming his sources. As noted in the 'translator's note' prologue, geisha are expected to be discreet, regarding what they know and who they know it about, and about their own trade in general. One of Golden's primary sources, former Geisha Mineko Iwasaki, specifically asked to be kept anonymous, and Golden went and thanked her in the author's note anyway. She herself netted criticism (and even death threats) for opening up in such a way, and eventually ended up publishing her actual memoirs, Geisha of Gion. She also said that either Golden downright lied about the geishas and their lives (specifically, the whole "Sayuri gets her virginity auctioned" was supposedly based on Iwasaki's experience, but she claims it never happened to her), or showed experiences that were beneficial to Iwasaki and Co. in a negative light.
This work contains examples of:
Adaptational Heroism: Hatsumomo is still a bitch to Sayuri in the film but far less so than in the novel, especially at the beginning of the film. For instance, in the film when she and Pumpkin are talking about Satsu in her room Hatsumomo simply tells her to leave the room. In the book, Hatsumomo violently slapped her. Hatsumomo is also made a little more sympathetic and clearly is made Not So Different from Sayuri.
California Doubling: The movie was filmed mostly in California as present-day Kyoto was judged to be too modern-looking for the period. The Gion district seen in the film was an elaborate set built specifically for the movie.
Costume Porn: Have you seen those kimono? But given the importance of kimono - well-made kimono and lots of them were expected of geisha - this is hardly unexpected. In the movie, this is an Enforced Trope: the directors didn't want the costumes to be perfect replicas. Rather they wanted them to look good on screen, and purposefully changed them slightly.
Distracted by the Sexy: There's a scene with the Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) teaching the protagonist, Sayuri (Zhang Zhiyi) that a true geisha can stop a man with her eyes. She demonstrates and then asks Sayuri to do so, which Sayuri does to a passer by riding a bicycle, causing him to crash.
Enforced Method Acting: Michelle Yeoh's unexpected exit, following "If you are found to be worthless...!" according to the director's commentary. They told her to leave the room after delivering the line, but Ziyi Zhang wasn't told that she would do so. It worked — after shouting in reply "I am not worthless!", she started crying before tearfully repeating the line to the now empty room.
Everyone Calls Him Barkeep: The Chairman, the Baron, the General. The Chairman is an odd case, because Mameha does refer to him by his real name (Iwamura Ken) but Sayuri, who's in love with him, does not.
She gets into a lot of trouble for being disobedient as Chiyo, however.
Fake Nationality: The three lead actresses are Chinese; Ziyi had to not only learn English for the role, but learn to speak it with a Japanese accent. Some suggest that this carries a great deal of offensive and Unfortunate Implications for actual Japanese people in the audience.
While the actress who played the young Pumpkin is of Japanese origin she lives in America and had to learn how to speak in an Japanese accent as well.
Famed in Story: Sayuri, Mameha, and Hatsumomo, as well as several other geisha that get passing mentions. Mameha in particular was famous for starring in an ad campaign and giving dance recitals in Tokyo. Sayuri relates an anecdote where a magazine named her one of the greatest geisha of Gion's past, but she says it's ridiculous, and that some people can't tell the difference between something truly great vs. something they've heard of.
Fatal Flaw: Hatsumomo wasn't able to destroy Sayuri and preserve her popularity in Gion due to her bad character that has alienated people who could be useful to her (such as Mother or proprietaress of the Ichiriki teahouse), and her own admirers. Sayuri specifically points out that Hatsumomo was successful enough that most okiya would still have wanted her after she bit the kabuki actor, but because she was also known to be cruel enough to do something like that again, no one would think it was worth the trouble.
First Kiss: This is the reason why the Chairman kissing Sayuri was so important to Sayuri. It was the first time any man had kissed her passionately on the lips.
Foregone Conclusion: Sayuri will never be reunited with Satsu, because if they had successfully ran away together, then Chiyo would have never become Sayuri and never became a geisha.
Subverted, however, in that no matter how badly Chiyo screws things up, she will become a geisha anyway, because it's in the title of the book and her memoirs.
Generation Xerox: The eventual fates of Sayuri and Pumpkin aren't that different from their mentors, Mameha and Hatsumomo.
Good All Along: Chiyo/Sayuri initially assumes Mameha is mentoring her for the chance to get back at Hatsumomo. While this is certainly a bonus, she finds out that it was actually as a favor to the Chairman.
High-Class Call Girl: The story is about the girl Chiyo who trains to become the esteemed Geisha, Sayuri who is primarily an artist but is required to sell her virginity to become official.
Humiliation Conga: Hatsumomo starts to lose it when Sayuri becomes a more successful Geisha than she is. Noticing this, Mameha tries her damndest to make it worse for her. She eventually succeeds.
Indentured Servitude: Saiyuri is sold to an okiya to become a geisha. She works there and her service pays off the expenses of her sumptuous kimono, wigs, and other items she needs to become a full geisha.
Instant Expert: Deconstructed in the book: What looked like instant expertise to others is really a combination of Chiyo being resourceful and incredibly determined.
Lie Back and Think of England: Though it's made clear that geisha are not prostitutes, they do traditionally lose their virginity to the highest bidder. In Sayuri's case, her thoughts during the procedure run along the lines of her attempts to "put all the force of my mind to work in making a sort of mental barrier between [the man] and me…I searched the shadows on the ceiling for something to distract me."
Literary Agent Hypothesis: Sayuri's memoirs were, according to the "Translator's Note", recorded and translated by a Dutch immigrant and college professor, Jakob Haarhuis. Haarhuis plays no other role in the story, he's just there to establish the setting.
Manipulative Bitch: Hatsumomo. Mameha to a lesser extent, but she's better able to control herself— Sayuri notes in the novel that Mameha is aware that the reason she's so successful is because other geisha, teahouse mistresses, and even maids think highly of her, so, unlike Hatsumomo, she'll do her best to remain in people's good graces.
May-December Romance: The Chairman is in his 40s when he first meets Sayuri when she is a pre-teen, and yet she pines for him. Likewise, Nobu has one-sided affection for Sayuri and is about the same age as the Chairman. In the novel, Chiyo and Satsu's mother is implied to be a lot younger than their father because he remarried after his first wife died. In fact, Sayuri's one night hook-up with Yasuda (who is in his 20s) when she is 19 and brief fling with a man during WW2 are some of the only examples that avert this trope.
No Name Given: "Dr. Crab", Granny, and Auntie. We do know that Granny and Auntie's surname is Nitta, same as Sayuri's and Mother's.
Not So Different: Hatsumomo and Sayuri. Hatsumomo is what Sayuri could have been if she had not been able to have a relationship with the Chairman. In the films, Sayuri says "I could be her. Were we so different? She loved once. She hoped once. I might be looking into my own future."
No Hero to His Valet: Hatsumomo is a beautiful, popular and successful geisha, but she's needlessly cruel to Sayuri and treats her and the other maids like her personal slaves.
Obfuscating Stupidity: Pumpkin, in a way. She plays the drunk bimbo when Sayuri asks her for help, but winds up completely screwing her over.
Only Known by Their Nickname: Pumpkin. Which probably sucks for her, because it's Sayuri who gave her that nickname in the first place. She adopts the geisha name "Hatsumiyo", but everybody, including her customers and other geisha, continue to refer to her as Pumpkin.
There's also Doctor Crab, who is never referred to as anything but Doctor Crab. Mameha describes it as "a little nickname he's picked up over the years." In the novel, it's No Name Given, since Sayuri simply refuses to say his name in the narration; in dialogue, he's referred to as 'the Doctor'. All she says is that if you saw him, the same nickname would come to you.
Parental Abandonment: Sayuri and her sister's mother was dying (and eventually died), while their father sold them to Mr. Tanaka and then died not too long after their mother. Pumpkin says that her father died of someone putting a curse on him, and afterwards she lived with an uncle who eventually sold her to Mother.
Politeness Judo: Pretty much all of the geisha have this skill but the black belt goes to Mameha.
Posthumous Narration / Posthumous Character: Odd case: Sayuri dictated her memoirs before her death (obviously), but the prologue established that she didn't want them published until after she and several key players in her life were already deceased. It's pretty fair to say that most if not all of the characters in the book had died by the time it was published.
In fact, it's noted in the 'Translator's Note' that Sayuri outlived all the others.
The Talk: Mameha illustrates the facts of life for Sayuri. It involves eels and caves. ("Every once in a while, a man's eel likes to visit a woman's cave.")
Best. Sex. Talk. Ever. (The unusual way Mameha explains it is because it was explained the same way to her by her own mentor.)
In the movie, this is parodied slightly when Mameha begins to explain and Sayuri stops her, saying "I know." When Mameha looks surprised, Sayuri explains, "I live with Hatsumomo!"
Talks like a Simile: Arthur Golden's favorite creative writing teacher must have told him, "Never just describe it if you can compare it to something. Preferably something that occurs in nature but is slightly weird and counterintuitive and will require the reader to stop for a second in order to picture it properly." In the book, this is supposed to be a sign of Chiyo's cleverness and part of what makes the geisha Sayuri a funny, amusing conversationalist.
Theme Naming: Intentionally. According to Sayuri, geisha often derive their artist names from their mentors. So Mameha got her name from her big sister, Mametsuki, and Hatsumomo got hers from Tomihatsu. Sayuri says that, in her case, the fortuneteller said all the names similar to Mameha's were inauspicious.
Translation Convention: The filmmakers seem to have forgotten that they were using this; the characters are able to hold a conversation with American soldiers. It averts Just a Stupid Accent, however, since the actresses use their natural accents.
Triang Relations: Nobu is in love with Sayuri, who is in love with the Chairman, who is Nobu's business partner.
We Used to Be Friends: Sayuri and Pumpkin. However, once Hatsumomo took Pumpkin in and Sayuri was adopted by Mother when she became popular as a geisha, Pumpkin became jealous of Sayuri, even betraying her at one point.
In Japanese culture at the time (and somewhat today) this wasn't remotely a big deal. Most of their clientele were married with families. In the present day scenes, Sayuri actually keeps some facts quiet out of respect for the Chairman's family.