Thursday, December 15, 2005
According to this Washington Post article, there are geisha experts that are critical of inaccuracies in Memoirs of A Geisha. They claim the movie takes liberties with the history and style of the era and creates false impressions of geishas. Of course it does, it’s a movie. The geisha is a strange cultural touchstone. They evoke a bygone era of elegance and grace while extolling women that are demure and deferential. The geisha image plays into a lot of stereotypes about the exotic Far East. The complicated and perhaps deliberately ambiguous sensual nature of geisha culture has always fascinated and perplexed Westerners.
The geisha is a nearly extinct career, a victim of modernization and changing tastes. While some traditional geishas remain, they exist largely as an anachronistic leftover. In modern Japan, the role of the geisha has been replaced by the hostess girl.
When I was in Japan this summer we took a tour that visited the Hondo Sensoji Buddhist shrine in Tokyo. Part of the complex has a long row of vendors and booths that are popular for shopping. Here there were a wide variety of people including more than a few groups of girls dressed as geishas. They were obviously not real geishas, but I still can’t quite figure out what makes people dress up in the middle of the day in period costume and go out in groups. I keep trying to come up with an American analogy to this hobby, but the closest I can come up with are Civil War re-enactors, but they don’t go out in public in costume. At least I hope not.
I think the image of the geisha has outlived the practice. It connects modern Japan to its traditions and culture and reminds them of a gentler, less hectic, romanticized past. Like the American cowboy, geishas and samurai are symbols of a life that never really was. That Japanese girls, and some boys, find dressing in exotic costumes entertaining is perplexing, but then Japanese pop cultural fads have always been, to use a term loaded with potentially offensive connotations, inscrutable.
Whether Memoirs of A Geisha is a compelling period piece or just exploitive Orientalism can be debated. I just feel it’s important to note that even in Japan, the age of the geisha holds a mysterious allure to this day.
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