Though it gives a generous peek into a cloistered and mysterious world of Japanese Geisha, most of what has remained with me after finishing ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ by American author Arthur Golden are these distasteful nuggets of information (about the Geisha life in 1930 and 40s in Japan; I do not know how much of these hold true today):
- Girls in Japan are sold to Okiya, that school them to become artistically accomplished, highly paid teahouse entertainers called Geisha
- The cost of all this forced training fall on the poor girls which they must pay back to the Okiya when they begin earning as Geisha
- A young girl’s Mizuage – or virginity – is put to public bidding and any man, however aged, filthy or lecherous he might be, stands to win the privilege to deflower a girl through the sheer power of money
- Every Geisha needs a Danna to survive and be respected, a wealthy man who supports her economically in exchange for a short-time sexual commitment
- Their prime job is to entertain men at parties but they almost serve as maids, escorting them to toilets when they need to go, bending down to tie their shoelaces when they leave and refraining from eating with the men at parties, to do it only later in maid-chambers
Yet, I cannot help but be intrigued by these colourful facts sprinkled in the book:
- A Geisha will never go out for her engagement until someone has sparked a flint on her back for good luck.
- Geisha use a face cream made from nightingale droppings.
- The time she spends with men, and thus her fee, is measured in incense sticks that burn for an hour apiece.
- Geisha sport elaborate and lavish hairstyles but it means their hair are mostly dirty and smelly as they don’t wash hair for weeks
‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ is a documentation of the Geisha life in 1930s and 40s in a Geisha district called Gion, Japan, told as an autobiographically styled novel. So Sayuri, the protagonist, is a fictional character though the details of her life are for real.
A photo of a Geisha in Gion taken from the Internet
The plot is simple: Nine-year-old Chiyo and her older sister, Satsu, daughters of an impoverished fisherman from a little town on the Sea of Japan, are sold into slavery. While pudgy Satsu is thrown into a low brothel to work as a prostitute, Chiyo with her distinguished blue-gray eyes is taken in by an Okiya, a boardinghouse for Geisha, as an investment. But Chiyo is hardly the lucky one as she must survive dreadful days as a prepubescent slave, frequent humiliation and the scheming and cruelty of her senior Hatsumomo. A rival of Hatsumomo named Mameha comes to Chiyo’s rescue by a stroke of destiny and helps her become a fully-ripe Geisha through a grueling apprenticeship. Shedding her ugly-duckling status, Chiyo thus becomes Sayuri. However, despite fame and fortune, Sayuri remains purposeless and lost until she eventually becomes the mistress of the man she had set her heart on all along.
This is an incredible book that, until half its length, surprised me, filled me with awe and even disgust with every detail about the Geisha life. Gion is a curious world. However, credit be given to the author because stretching the theme to the length of a novel is sheer craftsmanship. The book as a novel isn’t terribly interesting, but as a non-fiction account of a Geisha life, it wins hands down.
A still from the movie adaptation
And yes, I watched the film adaptation. Visually fascinating, but proves a drag owing to the plain plot. But do watch this Snow Dance sequence from the film, which though is NOT an authentic Geisha dance and is more of an American fantasy, is breathtaking!