Adapting any book for the screen is a tricky process, but surely no material has presented a greater challenge than Arthur Golden’s brilliant debut novel, Memoirs of a Geisha. First published in 1997, this dazzling first-person account of a geisha’s life is filled with beautifully detailed descriptions of intricate Japanese rituals and traditions. Could any filmmaker capture the cultural nuances, the rich emotional lives and subtle conflicts so elegantly depicted in the novel? Moviegoers will find out on December 9 when director Rob Marshall’s vision of Memoirs opens in theaters nationwide. Released by Columbia Pictures, the film was produced by Lucy Fisher, Douglas Wick (Gladiator) and Steven Spielberg, who was originally slated to direct but stepped aside when he couldn’t fit the film into his demanding schedule.
Oscar-nominated director Marshall (Chicago) prepared for the project by reading the novel and setting off on a research trip to Japan with key members of his production team. The group scouted locations on the Sea of Japan and visited several sites in Kyoto, where much of the novel is set.
After an international search to fill the lead role, Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang was cast as Nitta Sayuri, a young woman who rises from an impoverished upbringing to become one of Kyoto’s most accomplished geishas. Best known to American audiences for her roles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Jackie Chan’s Rush Hour 2, Zhang is a talented dancer as well as an actress, which gave her an edge for the part. Dance is the ultimate form of artistic expression in the geisha world, Marshall says, so it has a special place in our film. It was incredibly exciting for us to blend our vision as artists with the beautiful traditions of Japanese dance in telling Sayuri’s story. When she read the novel, Zhang says she was struck by Golden’s ability to capture the voice of a Japanese woman. I couldn’t believe that a man wrote this book about the life of a woman, Zhang recalls. And I couldn’t believe it was an American man writing with such detail about a little-known Japanese subculture. Playing her love interest in the film is Ken Watanabe, one of Japan’s top actors and an Oscar nominee for his role in The Last Samurai. Two Asian film stars, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li, take the roles of Sayuri’s patron (Mameha) and bitter rival (the geisha Hatsumomo).
The movie was filmed on location in Japan and on several Hollywood soundstages. At Ventura Farms, a horse ranch near Los Angeles, a huge replica of Kyoto’s geisha district was constructed, complete with a river running through the center of the set.
Ultimately, though, Marshall thinks it’s the message of the movie, rather than its exotic setting, that will connect with moviegoers. This story lives in a very specific world, and yet the underlying theme of the triumph of the human spirit against all odds connects to any culture, he says. The fact that this one child, after being taken from her home and sold into slavery, can survive and ultimately find love is deeply moving to me. Especially when that love is forbidden to her. Golden, a native of Chattanooga and a member of the family that owns the New York Times, studied Japanese art and history at Harvard and Columbia before going to work in Tokyo, where a co-worker revealed that his mother had been a geisha. From that spark, the book was born, and Golden completed three drafts before he settled on the first-person voice that distinguishes the novel. His interviews with a real-life geisha, who allowed Golden to observe her rituals of dress and makeup, contributed to the book’s authentic feel.
For those who haven’t read the novel, several movie tie-in editions are newly available from Random House. A Vintage paperback, a mass-market paperback and two audio editions are among the new choices. There’s also a Spanish movie tie-in edition, not surprising since the book found a worldwide audience and has been published in more than 30 countries. Fans of the book and the film will also want to check out an appealing coffee-table book from Newmarket Press, Memoirs of a Geisha: Portrait of a Film. Included are more than 100 full-color stills from the movie, along with essays on the film’s costumes, choreography and production design. Arthur Golden contributes an introduction about the experience of stepping onto the movie set in California. Here in front me was something far too fully realized to have grown out of those murky images in my head, Golden writes. While writing the book I wasn’t using the medium of stunning visual imagery but of language, and language is a poor vehicle for rendering the real world with any precision. Just how well the real world of Golden’s imagination is captured in the film version of Memoirs will be judged by critics and fans in the weeks ahead.