There is an odd and enchanting culture amongst the Japanese people known as the Geisha. Less sexualized than prostitutes and more art-oriented than courtesans, their existence is mysterious yet steeped in tradition. Based on the best selling novel of the same name, Memoirs of a Geisha explores the life of a famous fictional Geisha and her struggle to find forbidden love during the tumultuous times of World War II. It’s a touching story and beautiful movie if you can stay awake through it.
A young girl is torn from her impoverished coastal home and sold into slavery by her own parents. Her new mistress is the owner of a famous Geisha house, but the girl is only a servant. Only the best and the most beautiful will go on to be trained in the Geisha arts.
It is here in this house that the girl learns the meaning of friendship, betrayal, discipline and sacrifice, all common elements in her new life. One day she meets and falls in love with a government official, a man far above her own class of citizenship. Nowadays someone in that position would simply waltz into the official’s office, indulge herself, and save the dress she was wearing just in case it might come in handy for self-defense. Things are a little more complicated for this young serving girl and she begins down the path to become a Geisha to enter his high society world. Among the many complications she faces is the fact that Geisha are not permitted to fall in love.
Ziyi Zhang, who has practically become a fixture in every recent Chinese or Japanese based film released in the U.S., leads a cast of furiously strong female actors. They say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but I’m not sure what you could equate to a whole group of spurned women living under one roof. The actresses in the film succeed in harnessing the quiet intensity and incensed energy one would expect from characters whose lifestyle is one of extreme pressure combined with heavy emotional repression.
Director Rob Marshall and his creative team have crafted a true visual masterpiece. Without a doubt the movie is one of the most beautiful made in the last several years. The level of attention to detail is unparalleled and everything from the elegant Japanese costumes to the precisely constructed sets to John William’s inspired score is breathtaking. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie before where any given freeze frame looks like a piece of art, but that’s exactly what Marshall achieved.
For all of its mastered traits, the movie has one fatal flaw: it’s incredibly tedious to watch. That’s not to say that it’s difficult to keep your eyes on the screen. Quite the opposite, the cinematography and scenic shots are absolutely gorgeous. Still, no matter how beautiful a lawn may be, sitting there watching it grow is still pretty darn boring.
The film’s pacing seems better suited to a book than a movie. It’s understandable that a filmmaker or screenwriter would want to remain true to the values and qualities of the book upon which the movie is based. Still, if at some point you don’t acknowledge that literary media and film media are different, you end up with a final product that struggles to hold your audience’s attention. There’s a reason why there’s an Oscar for best adapted screen play. It’s not an easy thing to do, and Geisha’s filmmakers just didn’t have it down.
The longer I watched the movie the more desperately I wanted to love it. With each minute that passed I kept hoping something would change, the pace would pick up, and all the tiresomeness of what I’d seen so far would pay off. That exchange never came, and what I ended up with was 145 minutes of the most beautifully boring cinema I’ve ever had to try and simultaneously enjoy and endure.
All the same detail and exhaustiveness that went into making Memoirs of a Geisha were poured into making its DVD. Two discs crammed to the edge with material comprise the package and in a sad twist of irony, the extra material is more interesting to watch than the film.
The cast and crew are very proud of their achievement and all too happy to share their experiences. Two distinctly different commentaries accompany the movie on the first disc. Rob Marshall and producer John DeLuca share their thoughts on the movie, providing more of the creative and storyline background that the average viewer might enjoy. Several of the movie’s technical artisans are pulled together into a second commentary that film/design school students are more likely to appreciate.
The second disc has nearly a dozen featurettes that cover almost every angle of the filmmaking process. Whether your interest lies in how the movie was adapted from the book, how the actresses studied Geisha techniques, how to make the perfect Japanese salmon dish (yup, recipes included) or what it was like to have Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman performing the only score John William’s has ever asked to compose, there’s a feature for you. Ranging in length from five to fifteen minutes long, there’s around two hours of extra material to pour through.
Included with the featurettes (but far less interesting) is a pair of image collections. Mostly production stills and costume design drawings, they’re not particularly worth flipping through unless you love pretty pictures of very elaborate kimonos.
Missing are any deleted scenes. Given the length and tedium of the film, there was probably nothing cut, hence why there’s none to be seen. Still, there had to have been something dropped on the cutting room floor that might have been included. The image of production perfection portrayed in the DVD features can’t be completely accurate.
Unless you absolutely loved the film and need it in your collection, there’s no reason to buy this one. Just be sure you hit up your rental store for the second disc as most stores just include the first disc with the main feature. The extra materials on disc 2 are divided up and clearly labeled to allow you easy access to exactly the things your most interested in. Enjoy them. They almost make you forget how boring the movie was.