MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA - Blu-ray review

Sayuri's journey was just interesting enough to make it enjoyable, but the visual style is the true marvel.

James Plath's picture

When the DVD of "Memoirs of a Geisha" was released, DVD Town's Eddie Feng gave it a 4 out of 10 in his excellent review because he said it was an inaccurate depiction of geishas and Japanese life. Eddie was using a critical perspective that's popularly known as "New Historicism," which judges a work of art or literature according to the historical circumstances of its creation. And that's legitimate.

But it's just as legitimate to take an impressionistic approach, or to respond to Rob Marshall's film by considering how successful it is as a work of art. As someone who grew up watching films like "The King and I," I always suspected that I was seeing an American version of another culture that probably had some basis in fact, but also took a few liberties. That's obviously the case here too.

This 50GB Blu-ray is loaded with bonus features, and on one of them a make-up artist says they began by trying to replicate the authentic look of a geisha, but then wondered "How much I can soften, how much I can exaggerate . . . because I'm not doing a documentary." Marshall ("Chicago") says he used poetic license when it came to the dress and look of geishas in the film because "they were the supermodels, the movie stars of their time," and he wanted a beauty that was more modern and which might suggest "geishas on a Paris runway."

Say what you will, the results are striking, and partly because Marshall has a strong sense of visual style. "Memoirs of a Geisha" won Academy Awards for Best Achievement in Art Direction (John Myhre, Gretchen Rau), Cinematography (Dion Beebe), and Costume Design (Colleen Atwood). Though it received no nominations for writing, directing, and acting, Marshall's film adaptation of Arthur Golden's first novel (a white male imagining the world of an Asian woman) is nonetheless an absorbing period film that feels like a female epic. It's not just the story of a single geisha. As Marshall points out in his commentary, it's the story of four of them, actually.

As Marshall explains, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) lives as the perfect geisha who is not permitted to love anyone. Hatsumomo (Gong Li) "combusts, self-destructs" because she's incapable of living that life of personal denial. Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh) is a failed geisha who, as a result, ends up becoming a prostitute. And then there's the character who "writes" these memoirs, one who was totally made up by author Golden. Chiyo, who takes on the geisha name "Sayuri," rises to become the top geisha in Kyoto, loses it all because of WWII, and eventually follows an inevitable journey that, for her, began the day an aristocratic man known as The Chairman (Ken Watanabe) showed her a special kindness.

The word "geisha" means "walking art," and Marshall took his cue from this and used, as a point of entry into the film, a connection he felt with Chiyo. Like the dancer-turned-director, she underwent rigorous training as an artist and, in fact, suffered for that art. No pain, no gain.

There's almost a Picassoesque movement in the film from one predominant color palette to another. Picasso had his blue period, and "Memoirs of a Geisha" opens with a largely bluish tint as a young girl and her sister and sold by their father and taken away from their fishing village, never to return. After that, the look of the film turns grey as she is sold into a house that trains geishas and separated from her sister, who has been relegated to the pleasure district, and then the film progresses to a largely sepia look before Chiyo becomes more involved with the world of geishas and then the film bursts with color. This film looked wonderful in standard definition, but it looks even more spectacular in HD.

"Geishas are not courtesans, and we are not wives," the voiceover says. "We sell our skills, not our bodies." And those skills involve the arts of music, conversation, graceful movement, dance, and such seemingly mundane things as serving tea or knowing how to bend a wrist to catch a man's attention. Suzuka Ohgo is captivating as young Chiyo, and her training in the house of "Mother" (Kaori Momoi) is perhaps the most compelling portion of the film. And, yes, you can recognize that a Westerner wrote it when you start to see ever-so-slight plot similarities to "Pollyanna" and "An Affair to Remember." As the film progresses, and fate brings Chiyo (now known as Sayuri) into contact with The Chairman again, fate also ironically pushes her toward his facially-scarred friend, Nobu (Koji Yakusho). Through this phase, you can't help but think a bit of "Dr. Zhivago" and the love that occurs over time and space.

Marshall and his crew shot in Japan, negotiating many real sites and constructing an entire town because he couldn't locate any sites that looked like they may have in 1929, when the film begins. Everything was too modern-looking. But they did an amazing job, and to a Westerner it looks convincing enough.

Wow. Hi-Res was made for films with a strong visual style. "Memoirs of a Geisha" looks fantastic in Blu-ray, which you notice in scenes that have drab coloration just as surely as you notice the high level of detail and solid black levels in scenes that burst with color. The picture is presented in 2.40:1 widescreen.

The English PCM 5.1 uncompressed soundtrack is also impressive, with a nice spread of ambient noise and effects across the speakers and a rich timbre that fills the room. Additional audio options are English, French, and Thai Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English, English SDH, Korean, Chinese, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Thai.

A nice surprise here is that the 50-gig disc supports the full range of extras. Two commentary tracks are provided, one with the director and co-producer John DeLuca, and the other with costume designer Atwood, production designer Myhre, and editor Pietro Scalia. Both tracks are crammed full of insights and interesting information, and they're both enjoyable in their tone as well.

But I have to say that I enjoyed the featurettes even more. There are 11 of them: "Sayuri's Journey: From the Novel to the Screen" (includes clips of the author), "The Road to Japan" (shows Marshall and crew scouting locations), "Geisha Bootcamp" (fascinating look at how the actresses trained), "Building the Hanamachi" (more location shots and the story of how they built the town), "The Look of Geisha" (production design), "The Music of Memoirs," "A Geisha's Dance" (choreography), "The world of the Geisha" (a nice look at what it all means), "The Way of the Sumo" (another capsulate introduction), "A Day with Chef Nobu Matsuhisa," and a short feature on Marshall. All of them are pretty fascinating, and other than "boot camp" I'd be hard-pressed to pick a favorite.

Rounding out the extras are three Chef Nobu recipes on video cards (Newstyle Sashimi, Broiled Cod in Miso Sauce, and Mushroom Toban Yaki, which uses seven different 'shrooms!) and photo galleries featuring behind-the-scenes shots and pre-production artwork. Overall, a very nice package of bonus features.

Bottom Line:
I'm no expert on Japanese culture, but for me Sayuri's journey was just interesting enough to make it enjoyable, but the visual style is the true marvel of Marshall's film. The acting was solid and the screenplay decent, but it's the look of the film that makes it unforgettable.


Film Value