Hollywood's Memoirs of a Hootchy-Kootchy, Razzle-Dazzle, But Not-Kick-Butt Geisha; a Male Geisha Guerilla; and a Real Geisha Laughing
Tuesday, March 21, 2006 Posted: 09:46 PM JST
(by Jean Miyake Downey) - American friends keep asking me what I think of the film, "Memoirs of a Geisha." I don't bring up "Orientalism" because that would take up too much time. Instead, I tell them, "Its title should have been 'Hollywood's Mutated Memoirs of the Fantasies of a Middle-aged American Guy Pretending He's a Geisha.'
There's a character in the story modeled on the Dr. Fu Manchu stereotype of the sinister Asian male, and the author was sued by the geisha he interviewed for twisting the facts to suit his imagination. The book actually reveals more about the psyche of Arthur Golden and the film reflects more about Hollywood than either do about geisha in Japan.
During a time when international understanding is more important than ever; when women and people of color are struggling against right-wing backlash; and marginalized women and children, of all colors, are being commoditized for an exploding global sexual trafficking industry, with their lives traumatized and even destroyed, I feel very annoyed when I think about this Hollywood translation of 'Pretty Woman' into a 'Geisha'.
Unsavory media stereotypes of Asians have historically abounded in Europe, the United States and other former British colonies. John S. Major analyzed stereotypes of Asians found in both academic and popular literature. Jess Nevins has a great essay on the Yellow Peril, Fu Manchu, and other images. There are reasons that these 19th-century stereotypes won't die and are instead recycled.
For decades, Asian women have had to deal with the Madame Butterfly stereotype repackaged as Suzy Wong, Miss Saigon, and now Hollywood's interpretation of Arthur Golden's doppelganger. Granted Madame Butterfly killed herself when her master left, but these are essentially all "happy hooker" images. Pueng Vongs, a Midwestern Asian-American, perceptively juxtaposes the Golden/Hollywood geisha fixation with the increasing global trafficking of Asian sexual slaves globally in "Leers and Loathing in Las Vegas: Why Am I Mistaken for a Sex Import?":
Asian women are the latest hot byproduct of globalization. They are imported from places like Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh City and Seoul and packaged to sell sex. They come through legal and illegal channels with increasing speed and volume. They are distributed not just in places like Las Vegas Blvd. or Hollywood Blvd., but Main Street, U.S.A., in massage parlors and hidden brothels in cities such as Atlanta, Detroit and New Haven. It is the McDonaldsization of la femme Asian. In many communities with small Asian populations these women become unsavory ambassadors for the rest of us.
Further fanning the flames are popular portrayals of Asian women as passive, sexual objects such as in the new movie "Memoirs of a Geisha." It is a favorite telescopic view in the West of women from Asia...
The U.S. government says that an estimated 14,500 to 17,500 persons are trafficked into the United States each year – the majority are women and girls from Asia smuggled for the sole purpose of prostitution. Trafficking is the fastest growing crime in this country.
Of course, sexual trafficking is not just a North American problem, but an international problem including Japan, the largest market in Asia. Annually, at least 600,000 - 800,000 people, (mostly women and female children), are trafficked across global borders. This is a tragic form of multicultural social change.
Hollywood's mutation of Golden's already morphed "geisha" makes it more representative of an advertising image for an "Oriental" escort or massage service than a real geisha. The actresses do not wear the thick white theatrical make-up that render geisha almost archetypal in appearance, the dignified kimonos, or proper hairstyles. Instead, the lead actress puts on glitter eyeshadow, wears a see-through "kimono" and off-kilter high platform sandals, with tresses swinging, creating a burlesque appearance instead of a representation of authentic geisha costume.
The actress wears this get-up while doing a frenzied celebratory dance much more reminiscent of vaudeville's "Salome" semi-nude dancing style (forerunner of the striptease) than traditional Japanese dance of any kind. Toni Scheslinger detailed the history of "Salomania," in the Village Voice, writing "The Salome dance was an aspect of the Orientalism that had seized the West stylistically and thematically in the 19th century."
This film resurrects the Salome dance, still Orientalist a century later, however performed by a "geisha" instead of a "belly-dancer." If you google "Salome," and hit Images, you'll get a wide variety of this concept, unchanging for the most part, over time. This hootchy-kootchy dance is sequenced the night before the girl's virginity is auctioned off, a detail that Golden manufactured, according to Mineko Iwasaki, the geisha he interviewed.
Noy Thrupkaew deconstructs the American mania over Golden's geisha fantasy in "Going Geisha" in KJ #48, reprinted online at USAsians.net:
Sayuri's light-colored eyes stand as an apt metaphor for the book itself. Presented as Eastern – "too much water" says a fortune-teller-and Western in color, Sayuri's eyes are as much a manufactured hybrid as the book, all fairy tale and "ethnography," fantasy too often mistaken for reality. Ultimately, Sayuri's eyes are a dead giveaway of the man pulling the strings-they reveal her as nothing more than a white man in geishaface.
One Japanese-American has taken direct aim at the proliferation of geisha images in Orientalist stereotyping, as the San Francisco Chronicle's Annie Nakao discusses in "Memories of a Geisha Guerilla." Scott Tadashi Tsuchitani told her that promos for San Francisco's Asian Art Museum's exhibition, "Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile," drove him bonkers, so he spoofed it with his own interpretation, featuring himself. (This story and accompanying photograph of Scott in white powder with his glasses on are well worth a click on the link as well as these photographs at hyphenmagazine.com):
"It kept bugging me, and at a certain point, I realized I can stop getting upset about it and make art out of it."
Tsuchitani's postcards and flyers of himself as an elegantly attired geisha – face partially hidden by a fan – spoofed the museum's glossy promotional ad that descended on San Francisco recently like stubborn morning fog. Instead of the painted visage of a geisha, Tsuchitani's face gazes out at the viewer from behind plastic-framed glasses. Above it, the words: "Orientalist Dream Come True: GEISHA – Perpetuating the Fetish."
He plastered Japantown with his own image and his guerilla art caught the attention of Liza Dalby, a resident of Berkeley and the only non-Japanese geisha, (interview by Sally McLaren in KJ #48):
I was in Japantown this weekend and saw your clever satire on the SF Asian Art Museum's 'Geisha' poster. I agree with you entirely about the fetish, which has not much to do with the real geisha and everything to do with Western fantasies.
The concept of Orientalist critique seems to have become a part of the mainstream as nonacademic reviewers, including Maitland McDonagh at tvguide.com, criticize the film as "orientalist kitsch."
I saw the word "razzle dazzle" used in more than one review, as many seem to think the director's over-the-top vaudeville/cabaret/Broadway musical orientation played a huge part in this film, as much as Orientalism. Kaori Shoji of the Japan Times says in her review "Welcome to Kyoto, California":
Marshall can slap show-biz extravaganza onto the screen like no other; he probably shouts "Give 'em the old razzle dazzle!" in his sleep...the whole thing reeks of a souvenir shop extravaganza, like they upended the shelves of Oriental Bazaar right onto the streets. There's just no regard here for hanamachi aesthetics that disdained all that was obvious, conspicuous or abundant; the atmosphere depended on how much was hidden and how much was subtly suggested. But apparently, that's no way to razzle-dazzle 'em.
A Washington Post review describes Manale Shizumi, a geisha expert, who was flown to Hollywood as a possible dance consultant, "but she was alarmed by the speeded-up tempo of the music and the Broadway-style movement demands. 'Can you throw the fan higher?' she was asked."
It appears that the ludicrous over-the-top incongruities of this film may undo some of its Orientalist damage. This next review is accompanied with plenty of photographs from the film. Instead of being reminded of "Pretty Woman" in geishaface, Craig Reed, an American martial arts practitioner and writer for Kung Fu magazine was reminded of a classic Chinese kung fu tale:
The film played like hundreds of Chinese kung fu films I've seen over the past 30 odd years. The poor, decrepit family, the downtrodden child sold to a mysterious master and raised in a secretive environment. Growing up, the poor child is mistreated by the people she worships, the masters of her art. As our child hero suffers humiliating beatings meted out by jealous senior students, she finds a true mentor at the rival school, someone who will teach the true way of the art.
Reed said that along with many other inaccuracies and problems, the casting of so many martial arts actors threw him off:
I thought that, any minute now, with the chips down, the film's stars Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Watanabe and even Eugenia Yuan (daughter of kung fu screen queen Cheng Pei Pei in a minor role) would suddenly break into a life-saving flurry of martial arts madness and pugilistic mayhem. Then, of course, there's Cary Tagawa from MORTAL KOMBAT, Thomas Ikeda from Berry Gordon's THE LAST DRAGON and the almost prerequisite appearance by Mako from Jackie Chan's THE BIG BRAWL, who was also the voice of the evil Aku in the cartoon SAMURAI JACK...When you cast Asian stars that are known in America for kick-butt martial arts films, like Yeoh and Ziyi, then I, for one — as mentioned earlier — will be waiting for one of them to break loose and do some martial arts.
This is a sad state of affairs. Asian actors have so few outlets in Hollywood besides kung fu films, that they become typecast as martial artists, and can't successfully break out into other stereotypical roles.
Kai Yu, director of Asian Media Watch, an organization that monitors offensive portrayals of Asians in the media, told me that he doesn't anticipate his organization will launch a campaign against the film as it did with "Lost in Translation" for portraying Japanese people as goofy buffoons.
However, he criticized both the book as well as the film, saying,
"The problem with "Memoirs of a Geisha" is that this film was produced at all – it is yet another film that exoticizes Asian females and one based on Golden's book which masquerades as a biography and accurate historical piece. Rather than produce films that feature Asians and Asian Pacific Americans in unique and diverse roles in society, Hollywood has produced yet another film to fulfill the expectations of Western audiences – one that expects to see Asian women and Asia in exotic, sexualized form in line with past Hollywood 'geisha films.'"
I love the photograph of a geisha laughing on the cover of Kyoto Journal #48, "Women's Lives." It's one of my favorite covers. Last fall at the Kyoto Prize banquet, I watched dozens of Kyoto's best geisha perform. Their virtuosity as dancers and musicians was stunning. And their kimonos and white geisha make-up were exquisite. I see them as keepers of a certain period of traditional Japanese art and culture. Last year, I also saw a beautiful and textured 1953 film, "A Geisha," by the outstanding Japanese director, Kenji Mizoguchi, about a young woman who attempts to become a geisha in postwar Japan. Derek Smith has a great online review.
I don't think too many people are aware of male geisha (to be contrasted with Scott Tadashi Tsuchitani, the male geisha guerilla). However, Lewis Templado has a story about a male geisha in Asahi.com. He sounds very entertaining and good fun.
Jean Miyake Downey is a contributing editor at the Kyoto Journal: Perspectives on Asia (www.kyotojournal.org), an award-winning English-language quarterly published in Kyoto, Japan. She covers multicultural and transnational issues. Drawing on her background as a sociologist and lawyer, she takes an interdisciplinary look at the nexuses between historical and contemporary hybridity and fusion; global cultural trauma and historical healing; the revival and survival of traditional and indigenous cultures; and global human rights movements.
With kind thanks to Kyoto Journal for allowing us to publish this article by Jean Downey.
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