Hollywood's Faulty 'Memoirs'

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 15, 2005

Shizumi Manale is kneeling in a sea of brilliant silk. Yards and yards of costly hand-tinted and embroidered kimonos are spread before her on tatami mats. She has been unfolding them with devotional care; a flick of her wrists sends the fabric flowing across the floor. Even to an inexpert eye, the craftsmanship is obvious: One kimono of subtly textured ink-black is bursting with bright chrysanthemums edged in gold thread. Others in pastel shades feature patterns with delicately blurred outlines, as if the images were rising up from under water.

Shizumi picks up a corner, fondling its rose-petal softness. "You see -- this is art," she says quietly. "It really is like a living thing. It's what we call the power of kimono.

"This is what Rob Marshall does not understand."

The quality and style of the kimono is just one element of Japanese culture that Marshall overlooks in his film "Memoirs of a Geisha," Shizumi says. The Osaka-raised dancer also faults the director for including inaccurate versions of traditional geisha dancing and for failing to convey the studied artistry that geisha embodied in the 1930s and '40s, when the film is set.

The movie "has nothing to do with geisha in Kyoto," where Arthur Golden's best-selling novel of the same name was set, Shizumi says. "It's very rude to us. To us, the world of geisha is our culture."

Of course, this isn't the first time complaints have been raised about Hollywood's portrayal of a specific culture or time period. The industry's track record of faltering on historical, political, ethnic and other levels is long and varied. But for Shizumi and two Japanese artists who worked on the film, the disappointment at seeing their culture mishandled registers on a personal level. For those who carry that heritage close to their hearts, "Memoirs of a Geisha" is a missed opportunity.

Geisha life cuts close to the bone for Shizumi. When she was 15, she discovered a photo of her father and a geisha he had taken as his mistress. In a fit of shame and anger, she says, she tore it up. Shizumi says her attitude toward geisha changed when she found out that the mother of a beloved great-aunt had been a geisha. Her curiosity piqued, Shizumi immersed herself in geisha history, eventually producing a documentary on the elusive women.

Geisha have been grievously misconstrued in the West, she says. They were never prostitutes, though love affairs did happen. Above all, geisha were artists and entertainers, valued for their ability "to make the atmosphere softer, not so tense" at the teahouses where the wealthiest businessmen went to unwind after work. In the age before karaoke, teahouses were the after-hours hot spots for the corporate elite. "Men dreamed about it, to have a geisha pouring their sake," Shizumi says.

Shizumi has devoted herself to geisha arts, particularly traditional dance, which she has performed throughout the Washington area for years, and the tea ceremony. She has dedicated a room overlooking the back yard of her Silver Spring house to the meditative tea ritual. The room is peaceful and spare, like a temple; so quiet you can hear the gurgling of a little waterfall spilling into a pond outside. It is here, after sipping bowls of frothy green tea with a visitor, that Shizumi is taking some of her best kimonos out of their rice-paper wrapping. These are what a geisha would wear, she says; some of them are signed by their creators and cost more than $10,000. The one she is wearing is what she calls her "casual" kimono, for hanging around the house. She has kimonos for many occasions, including ones to wear for a dance rehearsal.

"Practice is respect; it's sacred," she says. "Even in practice you wear a nice cotton kimono. It's very important."

In his novel, Golden did a fine job of capturing the details and rituals of geisha life, she says. But though Shizumi praises the handsome settings of the film, she says it misses several key points. In a scene of the geisha rehearsing a dance, the actors are wearing loose garments "like a bathrobe." And many of the formal kimonos look too flimsy, lacking heft and luxurious details.

Nor does the dancing reflect the stillness and subtlety of traditional geisha dance, she says, particularly the solo for the central character Sayuri, an apprentice geisha who dons eight-inch high zori -- think lacquered platform flip-flops -- and a thin white gown and whips herself into a frenzied expressionistic dance under a cascade of confetti.

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