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Literature / Memoirs of a Geisha

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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 Kyoto, mainly in the decades around the Second World War.



This work contains examples of:

  • Abortion Fallout Drama: Sayuri's mentor Mameha aborts all of the children she conceived by her client, the Baron. While most of the characters treat it as normal if a bit embarrassing, Mameha has graves for her aborted children which she visits regularly.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness
    • In the book, Nobu's face is so terribly scarred and disfigured that Sayuri thinks it cruel to try and describe him, and he's missing an arm. In the film, his face is only somewhat scarred, and he's actually fairly handsome. He also has both arms.
    • Mother and Granny are described as quite ugly in the book—one of them with yellow teeth and red eyes, the other with skin ruined from bad geisha makeup. In the movie, they look like perfectly normal older women.
  • 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.
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  • Adaptational Ugliness: An extremely downplayed example. Hatsumomo is just as gorgeous in the film as in the book, but in the latter she is always seen dressed up; her pride would not allow her to be seen casually at all. Sayuri in fact never sees her hair down until she departs the okiya, as it is always up and styled with ornaments. The movie's Hatsumomo is seen in various states of undress many times. She's also not as feminine and delicate in the film, which was a stylistic choice to make her seem more visually intimidating.
  • Age Lift:
    • In the novel, Mameha says she's three years younger than Hatsumomo (and at one point, falls back on this when she needs something nasty to say to her). In the film, Mameha is portrayed as older and more womanly, while Hatsumomo looks younger and more like The Vamp. Ironically Hatsumomo's actress was only a handful of years younger, but appears to be playing her far younger than her age.
  • Alpha Bitch: Hatsumomo, who rules the okiya with an iron fist and thinks nothing of abusing those who can't fight back. Things eventually turn against her though as she loses her popularity and finds she has no one to turn to because she pushed everyone away by being so horrible.
  • Always Someone Better:
    • Sayuri becomes this to Pumpkin eventually, and Pumpkin resents her for it.
    • Hell, Sayuri is this to her older biological sister, Satsu, although not intentionally. Before they get separated, people are constantly remarking how much prettier Chiyo is than Satsu, quite often when Satsu is within earshot.
  • Anywhere but Their Lips: Most of the men that Sayuri had been with kissed her anywhere but her lips. It made her First Kiss with the Chairman so much more special.
  • Artistic License – History: Something which has gathered the book much controversy. There are some minor inaccuracies in the dress and makeup used by geisha, and the order of an okiya (for example, Pumpkin and Sayuri are beaten several times for their misbehavior, but in Real Life, beating an apprentice geisha was a big no-no.) Goldman's major liberties are that of mizuage and danna. To put it as simply as possible, mizuage—the true nature of which ranges from one geisha's testimony to the next's, though hair-cutting was a common practice—very, very rarely involved selling a geisha's virginity to the highest bidder. In any case, it certainly was never a "must" for every geisha, and would be a very discreet matter. As for danna, they did (and to a certain degree, still do) exist as "patrons" of a geisha that provided funding. However, this relationship was almost always professional, and not the "sex-for-money" connection shown in the book.
  • Babies Ever After: It's implied that Sayuri had a son with the Chairman.
  • Beauty Is Bad
    • Hatsumomo is utterly beautiful but a terrible person.
    • Subverted with Mameha and Sayuri, though. They're both attractive, but (mostly) good people
  • Boy Meets Girl: Gender-flipped. Girl meets boy. Girl trains to become geisha to meet him again. Girl meets boy again, but he doesn't seem to recognize her.
  • Break the Cutie: Poor Pumpkin. First forced into the okiya like Sayuri; apprentices Hatsumomo, who regularly beats and bullies her; is always picked on for being clumsy and not as attractive as other maikos; forced to become a prostitute during the war times. These things, topped off with her only friend taking the one chance of good fortune she had, effectively ruin her.
  • Break the Haughty: Hatsumomo, who had her tactics gradually turned against her. She eventually became violent to her clients, causing her to be thrown out of the okiya and never seen again (not even as a prostitute).
  • Butt-Monkey: Pumpkin. Clumsy, a bit dim, and struggling in almost every skill that geisha are supposed to know. Even her best friend Sayuri can't deny that Pumpkin is just a very unfortunate girl overall.
  • The Chessmaster: Mameha is this and also a Magnificent Bitch during Sayuri's apprenticeship and in her plan to destroy Hatsumomo.
  • Cinderella Circumstances: Sayuri's life wasn't lavish, but she had her family and was generally at peace in her fishing village. Once sold to the okiya, however, she not only has to do menial chores, she not only is never allowed to see her sister, but she has to take everything Hatsumomo does for her simply because Hatsumomo is the okiya's breadwinner.
  • The Collector of the Strange: Doctor Crab. Not only does he collect underage virgins to have sex with, he also keeps samples of their blood from when the hymen breaks.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Hatsumomo, a viciously temperamental tramp who is associated with fire, tends to wear red and black; Sayuri, a demure Determinator who is associated with water and patience, wears blue; Mameha, who is older, more stately, and keeps herself and Sayuri grounded, wears pale greens and stone greys.
  • 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. It was also explained that the designs of the kimono reflected each character in subtle ways.
  • Cryptic Background Reference: Sayuri makes vague references to many other geisha, actors, and politicians she's known, but didn't play a huge part in her life. Two of the most intriguing are "Mamemitsu back in the 1890s" and "the great Mamekichi." She says at another point that Mameha's name is derived from her older sister, Mametsuki, and Nobu wonders why Sayuri's name isn't "Mame-something," which begs the question— are Mamemitsu and Mamekichi sisters of Mameha or Mamestuki? Sayuri makes vague references to Mameha's other younger sisters being at her debut ceremonies, but that's all.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: There's a scene with 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.
  • 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) at one point but Sayuri, who's in love with him, does not. Pumpkin too. Though her geisha name is Hatsumiyo, everyone just calls her Pumpkin.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Mother may be an enterprising businesswoman obsessed with money (which makes sense considering how much training a geisha actually costs) but she will not adopt Hatsumomo or Pumpkin as her heir because of how unpleasant Hatsumomo is to everyone and how Pumpkin would simply be a puppet to her wrath.
  • Evil Counterpart: Hatsumomo to Mameha. Both are beautiful and skilled geisha, but whereas Mameha is mostly well-meaning and looks out for Sayuri (most of the time, anyway), Hatsumomo scams her customers out of their money and treats Sayuri, Pumpkin, Mameha, and just about everyone else like garbage.
  • Evil Former Friend: Pumpkin becomes one of these after Mother adopts Sayuri instead of her and Sayuri becomes a much more popular geisha than her.
  • Extreme Doormat: Sayuri, at first, though it's understandable. On top of being very young at the start, misbehaving even slightly will either get her reprimanded, beaten, and/or thrown out to starve in the streets.
  • Fairy Tale Motifs: Primarily Cinderella - as Chiyo loses her family and has to become a servant, even ending up with something of wicked stepsisters in Hatsumomo and Pumpkin. Mameha acts as the Fairy Godmother. There are also elements of Snow White, with Hatsumomo being jealous that Sayuri will one day become beautiful enough to supplant her, and the Baron being the proverbial huntsman.
  • 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 proprietress of the Mizuki 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.
  • First Period Panic: Sayuri briefly mentions when she first got her period as being like if she had sneezed and parts of her brain came out. Auntie clears this up and tells her it's a perfectly natural part of being a woman.
  • 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.
  • Framing Device: 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.
  • Generation Xerox: The eventual fates of Sayuri and Pumpkin aren't that different from their mentors, Mameha and Hatsumomo. Sayuri and Mameha both end up very successful geisha, while Pumpkin and Hatsumomo eventually run out of luck and business, falling out of memory. Both generations knew each other at a young age but turned bitter against one another in their later years.
  • 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.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Nobu is a grouchy man who doesn't like to play around. Even around Sayuri, he's still pretty touchy.
  • Head-Turning Beauty: Typical reaction to a beautiful geisha. In the film, Mameha teaches Sayuri that getting a man to stop walking and stare at you is a skill a true geisha must have.
  • 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.
  • Hollywood History::
    • The book is meant to be a fairy tale combined with historical fiction, complete with a beautiful rags-to-riches Cinderella, a mysterious Prince Charming, and a sort of wicked stepmother — which would be fine, except the book gives the impression of being a biography and based on real life, though it's pure fiction and contains many inaccuracies and inconsistencies, making most casual readers with no background to real geisha believe that it's all 100% true, much to the chagrin of those with prior interest. The one most aficionados would name first is the auctioning of the virginity of maiko about to graduate as geiko.
    • In fact, the book was Very Loosely Based on a True Story by the life of the real geisha Mineko Iwasaki. After Memoirs was published, Iwasaki lost friends, received criticism and even death threats, as geisha are supposed to treat their clients with the utmost confidentiality, and in putting her name in the book, Golden broke that confidentiality. She got so upset at the author, Arthur Golden, that she sued him for breach of contract and defamation of character and then wrote her own book (Geisha of Gion) to counter all the fictionalization.
  • 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. The beginning of this is when Sayuri finds the brooch she'd be falsely accused of stealing and lead to her years of misery. Hatsumomo finds a diary of Sayuri's and attempts to get Sayuri in trouble with it. Mother completely takes Sayuri's side and demands Hatusmomo repay her for the brooch as well as the Tatami mats Hatsumomo ruined after cutting her foot while drunk.
  • Indentured Servitude: Sayuri 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. Sayuri-the-narrator explains that, due to the wager between Mother and Mameha, where Mother would end up paying Mameha double wages if Sayuri was successful, but half wages if she was adequate or less, Mother gave young Chiyo almost no time to practice her geisha skills and kept her overloaded with chores. Because Chiyo was that desperate to meet her goals, she instead constantly visualizes how to play her musical instruments, makes sure to maximize her time by studying songs when her mind was most pliable and retentive, and invents tons and tons of mnemonic devices to help her remember her dance choreography and learns to heighten her audience's engagement and her own performance by focusing on her own griefs, which lends her dancing heaviness and dignity. So it looks to outside observers like the geisha Sayuri mastered all of these skills without any effort, but the truth is that her mind is always, always working on it, no matter what else she's doing.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Sayuri and Mameha, who would become a mentor and a sister for Sayuri as well.
  • Jerkass: Hatsumomo, who gets away with it because she's the okiya's breadwinner. This gradually gets subverted in the novel however, as Mother's patience starts to wear thin after Hatsumomo stops bringing in as much money as she once had. Sayuri considers the true turning point for her and Hatsumomo when she discovers the broach that Hatsumomo had accused her of stealing years ago. Hatsumomo assumes that Sayuri will again be accused of stealing from her and have to pay her back, telling Mother that she discovered it in Sayuri's makeup box and that Sayuri has been keeping a journal with less than flattering portrayals of Mother. When she is unable to find the journal, Mother tells her she will have to repay Sayuri for accusing her of stealing the broach and have to pay for the tatami mats that she ruined after she cut her foot. Hatsumomo discovers her plan for ruining Sayuri's life will never come to pass and laughs in defeat.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Mameha is very strict but this is because she takes her job very seriously, even suggesting a new Danna when Sayuri pleads for it not to be Nobu.
  • Keep It Foreign: The original novel uses LOTS of Japanese words without any translation, assuming the readers have some knowledge about Japanese culture.
    • The movie takes it further. Before she becomes a full-fledged geisha, the novel always refers to Sayuri as an "apprentice geisha," while the movie uses the Japanese term maiko.
  • Kick the Dog
    • Mother sells a kimono one of Sayuri's clients gave her as a present, and when Sayuri complains she had no right to do so, she replies that everything Sayuri owns, the okiya therefore owns too. Sayuri is so annoyed about this that she sleeps with Yasuda in retaliation, something Mother explicitly told her not to do.
    • Mother also refuses to take Pumpkin back after they get the okiya up and running again after the war, on the basis that Pumpkin doesn't bring in enough money to justify feeding her.
    • Despite everything Mameha went through for him, the Baron refuses to use his influence to get her somewhere safe when the war breaks out. (Sayuri notes that their formal relationship ended several months earlier, but it must have been on fairly friendly terms, because Mameha thought of him first when she needed help.)
    • When Hatsumomo catches Pumpkin practising shamisen with Sayuri, she pinches Pumpkin so hard on the lip that she starts crying, warning her to never help out Sayuri again because they are now rivals.
  • Kimono Fan Service: All three kinds. The kimonos in the book are described in lavish detail. Japanese locals and foreigners alike find geisha attractive not only for their beautiful dress and makeup, but for their exotic beauty.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: After everything horrible Hatsumomo had done in order to ensure her own success, it is rather satisfying when she finally gets what's coming to her as her horrible personality isolates everyone around her when things are no longer in her favor. After Hatsumomo bites the actor, this is the final straw and Mother throws her out for good. Sayuri states Hatsumomo was still successful enough at the time other okiyas would probably have wanted her if not for her cruel reputation.
  • Lie Back and Think of England: Though geisha are not prostitutes, at the time the movie is set in, it's known that some greedier okiya forced them to lose their virginity to the highest bidder (a practice more common amongst Oiran). 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."
  • Loving a Shadow: Nobu's entire impression of Sayuri comes from interacting with her while she's working as a geisha and thus putting up a persona, and as a result he doesn't know or understand her nearly as well as he thinks he does. Sayuri lampshades it a few times, at one point telling Nobu that he has far too high an opinion of her.
  • 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.
  • Master-Apprentice Chain:
    • Tomihatsu -> Hatsumomo -> Pumpkin (Hatsumiyo)
    • Mametsuki -> Mameha -> Sayuri
  • 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. This is common amongst geisha as most of them are rather young when they become geisha and the only men who can afford to have them as their mistresses are the very wealthy men who tend to be much older by the time they can afford it.
  • Meaningful Rename: Geisha have always employed artist names.
  • Memento MacGuffin: The handkerchief that the Chairman gave to Sayuri when they first met when she was twelve is kept by Sayuri as a good luck charm.
  • Naïve Newcomer: Sayuri at first. She has absolutely no idea how geisha work, and has to have everything explained to her by Mameha, Pumpkin, and other people in the business.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Mameha makes a point of being kind and respectful to even the lowest maids, because she understands that she owes her success to everyone who thinks well of her. Sayuri also acts in a similar manner, although it's less clear whether she was taught this or if it's because she can empathize with them.
  • 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. Mother's name is briefly mentioned in the novel, when Auntie addresses her in front of company. (It's Kayoko.)
  • 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." However as Sayuri said, the real future fell from the air (World War Two).
  • 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. Mameha also encourages this behaviour in Sayuri at first, purely to avoid Hatsumomo's abuse.
  • Onee-sama: Mameha, with a bit more deviousness.
  • 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 afterward she lived with an uncle who eventually sold her to Mother, claiming she was one of the stupid girls and needed to live in a place she could be controlled.
  • Pet the Dog: In the film version. Mameha is not cruel to Sayuri, but as in the book, she both cares about her and uses her as revenge on Hatsumomo. Mameha sets up the bidding for Sayuri's mizuage, and the Baron bids the highest. Mameha arranges for it to go to Dr. Crab instead, as the Baron had assaulted Sayuri before.
    Mameha: It was my fault. I could not protect you.
  • Pinball Protagonist: Sayuri tends to be pushed around by forces outside her control, either by Mother or Mameha, which is completely justified given the time period. She does have a few moments of rebellion as Sayuri, such as sleeping with a young man after Mother sells a kimono he gave her as a present.
  • 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, but the "Translator's Note" prologue established that she didn't want them published until after she and several men who played a key role in her life were already deceased. The Translator's Note goes on to say that Sayuri outlived all of the key players she specified, but doesn't say who they were. One of the final things she says is that the Chairman has since died, and her recap of things after World War II and after the main body of the story mention several deaths. While several female characters, such as Mameha, surviving Sayuri cannot be discounted, it is a fair bet to say that most of the characters Sayuri dwells on in her recollection are probably dead by the time you're reading it.
  • Purple Prose: Sayuri's "clever" way of thinking goes in line with the writing. Nine times out of ten, a description of something will be accompanied by a simile.
  • Pretty in Mink: Some fur trimmed outfits in the movie.
  • The Resenter: Pumpkin becomes this to Sayuri. Considering Sayuri stole her one chance of good fortune by being adopted instead of her, it's hard to blame her.
  • Revenge Myopia: Pumpkin blames Sayuri solely for the fact that she lost her chance at being adopted. This ignores that she never had a chance of being adopted thanks to Hatsumomo alienating Mrs Nitta, and the latter choosing Sayuri mainly because she doesn't want to put up with Hatsumomo anymore (as Pumpkin would easily be her puppet). Sayuri in fact tries to get Mrs Nitta to adopt both of them, which doesn't happen because of Hatsumomo. But as Hatsumomo is gone by the time Pumpkin enacts her revenge, she makes do with Sayuri.
  • The Rival: Hatsumomo and Mameha.
  • Sadistic Choice: Sayuri is faced with one near the end of the novel - either she allows Nobu to became her Danna, thus permanently isolating herself from being with the Chairman and have all her hard work rendered pointless, or betray the trust of a good friend so she can be with the man she loves. She chooses the latter.
  • Sadistic Teacher: Or mentor. Hatsumomo is only interested in using Pumpkin as a means of destroying Sayuri and doesn't really care about teaching her how to be a geisha. Pumpkin even says how she hates Hatsumomo more than she's ever hated anyone in her life. When Hatsumomo is sent away for good, Pumpkin is lost without her, not even made it past mizuage.
  • Scenery Porn: Kyoto, Japan is described in all of its cherry blossom-filled glory.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Beautiful!: Deconstructed. Hatsumomo is able to get away with her rotten behavior for a while because of her beauty and status as the top geisha. However, once Sayuri supplants her in this role, everyone no longer has any reason to put up with her.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: The Chairman and Nobu. Best of friends, but while the Chairman is polite and even cries at one of Sayuri's performances, Nobu is a very grouchy man with a passion for sumo-wrestling.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers:
    • A geisha is never meant to fall in love with any man, so Sayuri is in quite a bind when it comes to her love for the Chairman.
    • Hatsumomo had her own star-crossed love in Koichi, not least because he was already married. They split up precisely because he finds it too painful to be with her, knowing they can never truly be together.
  • Sympathy for the Devil: Despite all Hatsumomo has done to her up until this point, when the scales start to tip in Sayuri's favour and Mameha gleefully discusses how to utterly destroy Hatsumomo's reputation to get rid of her once and for all, Sayuri comments that although Hatsumomo deserves it, she can't find much pleasure in ruining someone's life.
  • 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.") 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.
  • This Is Unforgivable!: Nobu is angry at Sayuri for much of the book for taking General Tottori as her Danna, even though Sayuri tries to explain it wasn't her choice. Later, when the Minister expresses interest in becoming her new Danna, Nobu tells Sayuri in no uncertain terms that he would never speak to her again if she associated with the Minister in that way. This gives Sayuri the idea to do just that in order to prevent Nobu from becoming her Danna.
  • 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.
  • Trauma Conga Line: Just in her childhood, Sayuri's father sells his daughters away, Sayuri's older sister is separated from her and forced into prostitution, Sayuri is forced to live in a house with uncaring and almost abusive people to care for her, her one attempt to reunite with her sister fails, and both her parents die while she's away from home.
  • Triang Relations: Nobu is in love with Sayuri, who is in love with the Chairman, who owes his life and livelihood to Nobu.
  • Truth in Television
    • A maiko often did sell her virginity to the highest bidder as a coming-of-age ritual, though this was done very discreetly and tastefully, not like an auction. This was not necessarily required, as Iwasaki (who the book is based on) did not, which is why she got irritated when Golden made it seem inevitable.
    • Some geisha did prostitute themselves to American soldiers, leading to the early American image of the "geisha girl," a cheapening and oversexualization of the geisha. (You'll see this preconceived notion corrected, beautifully, in The Teahouse of the August Moon.)
    • The practice was outlawed in 1959, the same year prostitution was outlawed in Japan. So by the time Iwasaki became a geisha, it already died out. Geisha do often have Danna now but mizuage is no longer about losing their virginity.
  • Two-Faced: Nobu. The scars that take up half his face are so ghastly that Sayuri can't stand to look at him for very long.
  • Uncertain Doom: Hatsumomo's ultimate fate is never revealed as Sayuri is unsure what happened to her. There were rumors that she had become a prostitute but they were never proven so Sayuri assumes she might have died from alcoholism.
  • Unknown Rival: Pumpkin, in the sense that Sayuri doesn't seem to understand why Pumpkin would see her as a rival.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Let's just say that Golden took a lot of creative liberties with the story to turn it part-fairy tale, part-historical fiction. He based the story off interviews with famed geisha Mineko Iwasaki, though Iwasaki herself was never abused and willingly became a geisha out of true passion (her required separation from her doting parents, though voluntary, was still no less heartbreaking - but at least took months of preparation and testing out living in the okiya before making things official), and unlike other maiko, never had to sell her virginity, her mizuage a purely symbolic ritual. She was also involved with an older, married man, but he ultimately passed away from cancer and she married a man her own age. Golden's artistic liberties caused an infamous amount of flak from Iwasaki, who was angered by the story's alleged preoccupation of sex that, being supposedly based on her life, inaccurately made her look like a prostitute.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Hatsumomo's is deliberately exacerbated by Mameha, which also doubles as Laser-Guided Karma, as Hatsumomo did something similar to Sayuri when she was an apprentice, by following her around Gion and chasing her out of teahouses.
  • Water Is Womanly: Sayuri is a kind and determined young woman, with a desire to be with her beloved Chairman, who becomes an elegant, beautiful geisha during the story. She comes from small fishing village and is said to "a lot of water in [her] personality", which is tied to her unusual blue-grey eyes. Sayuri's personality of water represents her adaptability throughout her life as a geisha:
    "Water never waits. It changes shape and flows around things, and finds the secret paths no one else has thought about — the tiny hole through the roof or the bottom of the box. There's no doubt it's the most versatile of the five elements. It can wash away earth; it can put out fire; it can wear a piece of metal down and sweep it away. Even wood, which is its natural complement, can't survive without being nurtured by water. And yet, you haven't drawn on those strengths in living your life, have you?"
  • 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.
  • Wham Line: From the Chairman:
    Chairman: Sayuri, I am the one who asked Mameha to take you under her care.
  • What Beautiful Eyes!: One of the most striking features about Sayuri is her gray eyes. The colour is unnatural gray, her eyes are commented on several times and overall they make her stand out.
  • World War II: Takes place during this time

Alternative Title(s): Memoirs Of A Geisha


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