Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Eiga no Geiko

Every Halloween or so we are bound to run into some girl dressed up in a Japanese Kimono. Predictably, someone’s bound to call her a Geisha. In fact there’s even a “Geisha House” here in Hollywood. Well, not one like the ones in Kyoto but you get the picture. But what is Geisha really? I thought I would take this opportunity to explore this question. But as you might have guessed Hollywood doesn’t have much interest in the subject nor when it does do they get it right. Such cultural indifference in the land of opportunity may not seem like a great travesty but there’s nothing worse than simplifying a very complex culture down to a few sound bites and familiar Chinese actresses for the sake of being an equal opportunity employer. Sure other people have already covered these arguments before hence, we have films like Memoirs of a Geisha. But in all fairness to the performance of Ken Watenabe, I didn't feel it wasn’t a complete cinematic suppository but for true Japan-o-philes like myself, it simply did not suffice.

In America the life of a Geisha is highly misunderstood or considered an archaic throwback to an era of female submission. This view is a distorted one. Fortunately the information is out there and there are some good films about the world of the Geisha that are most enlightening as they are educationally satisfying.

I can name three films that give us insightful perpectives such as the 2006 documentary Hannari, The 2007 Maiko Haaaan!, and the brutally brilliantly made 1983 film Yokiro aka The Geisha starring the legendary Ken Ogata. I’ll talk more about those films but first I’d like to talk to you about Hannari.

It was last October 15th 2009 in the Aratani Theater in Little Tokyo that I had the great fortune of meeting the director of Hannari Miyuki Sohara at the performance of the Shochiku Kabuki Theater performance & lecture. I was coming up for air during the intermission when I came across her table. Sohara-San was standing there all alone selling DVD copies of her documentary and asked me politely to view her film. I had seen a poster or two of her documentary but knew little of it. I’m not sure if it was her charming demeanor, curiosity, or the incredibly beautiful pictures she had gracing the covers of Hannari’s promotional material but I was instantly hooked. I don’t think I could have whipped out that $25.00 faster than I normally do at the bar when cotton mouth sets in faster than she could say Arigatou’ Gozaimasu. I could not wait to get home for I was in for a real treat!

I had taken my newly purchased copy of Hannari home and popped the disk in the DVD player and braced myself. For I was finally going to get a real honest documentary showing me the true hidden world of the Geisha Modern. Now I have seen other small bits and pieces here and there on National Geographic Channel and elsewhere including this one English twit who tried to live as a Geisha for five days and was crying by the end of the first night. But there would be no crying on the first night for any would be Maiko on this film. This was the serious presentation I had been waiting for. This was a real look into the Geiko Community also known as “The Flower and Willow World.”
Separating fact from fiction, Hannari opens up like a guided tour into the life of the Geiko. Hannari is shot entirely in the Imperial City of Kyoto. We visit several young Maiko apprentice’s that are easily identified by their colorful kimonos and high waisted Obi’s with the ends streaming open down their backs. We get to see the entire process of the young girls many of them fresh out of high school that abandon the modern world and take a step back in time to a world of tradition and strict discipline. As we see the male Otokoshi (Male chaperone) escort one Maiko to Okiya where Maiko board and train we see the ins and outs of this rigorous lifestyle adjustment as seen as one would be Maiko peers out the wooden slats to tell her high school classmates why she can not go hang out. This must be tough on a young girl to give up such modern conveinences that dominate the modern culture of Japan but so is the training and the dedication it takes to transition from Maiko to Geiko.
In Emperor Meji’s time, Geiko numbered in the thousands. Today they number around three hundred. In the old days it was mostly girls local to Kyoto that became Maiko. Today most girls come from all over Japan and elsewhere such as this one Maiko named Komomo. Komomo whose parents are Japanese was born in Mexico City, lived in Beijing, and found an Okiya on the internet. (I tell you that you can find just about anything on the net!) In the old days you needed an introduction or recommendation just to get through the front door. Komomo applied on line and now she is working as a Maiko in the Miyagawacho District of Kyoto. There are many good interviews in Hannari with many beautiful Maiko but what really sparks interest are the interviews with the Geiko both past and present. Their personal stories combined with period photographs illuminate a world long past.

Throughout Hannari we meet many Geiko aging from their 40’s to their 80’s each displaying their subtle graces and carefully leaned moves. It is cool to see a Geiko in her 80’s leading a performance or teaching new Geiko choreography of a new dance. And we see quite a few performances throughout the documentary. We even get a look at “Kitano Kabuki” which is composed of an all Geiko cast. For anyone who has seen traditional all male Kabuki, the male roles now played by females may throw you for a loop but just as with traditional Kabuki you will soon become involved in their characters and not think twice of it. Aside from the juxtaposition of gender roles, the themes of Kitano Kabuki set it apart. Unlike Kabuki theater where there are story lines of great tragedy there is nothing gloomy in Kitano Kabuki. It simply not does not do for the Geiko for it is said that Geiko are supposed to make people unwind and be happy. If you can’t see this in person or plan to, Hannari gives you a rare look into the uniqueness of Kitano Kabuki.

The challenges of any would be Geiko are for the determined as said by one featured male dance choreographer. Not everyone makes it and oh yes after much work there may be crying but not without hard effort to achieve. There is a strict hierarchy that must be abided by and many rules of proper Japanese Etiquette to be learned. Transition from Maiko to Geiko takes on average six full years before she makes her debut as living art through dance, music, and performance. Hannari offers a fascinating look into the world of the Geisha. This film was released in 2006 and is indeed one of the most beautiful documentaries I have ever seen. I give my compliments to director Miyuki Sohara. Omedetou’ Gozaimasu!!!

And now to the lighter side of Geiko. 2007’s Maiko Haaaan!!!

Picture if you will, the ultimate Japanese office nerd named Kimihiko Onizuka (played by Sadao Abe) who looks like Takeshi Kitano’s nutty professor in “Getting Any.” He is obsessed with apprentice Geisha and dreams of playing drinking games with them all while utterly abandoning his present girlfriend. As luck would have it his company transfers him to Kyoto leaving his frustrated girl Fujiko (played by Kou Shibasaki) behind. While Onizuka chases after his dream Fujiko follows him to Kyoto and becomes a Maiko in hopes of finding Onizuka. Of course, Onizuka has no easy task ahead of him for his dream of getting inside a Geisha House. To follow his dream he must somehow get around the “No First Timers” rule.

Onizuka finds out the hard way you can’t just buy your way into a Geisha House. You need to have someone vouch for you. (If this is you, take a cue from this movie and remember to act responsibly. Hence the reason why they have that No First Timer Rule!) So going back to Onizuka's quest for Geiko, he manages to overcome his first obstacle only to be further complicated by a developing rivalry with a baseball star Kiichiro Naito (played by Shinichi Tsutsumi) who from that moment on he will try to out do and even changing multiple careers. Onizuka goes to incredible lengths to rival Naito with hilarious results. Maiko Haaaan! is a zany comedy shot entirely in Kyoto directed by Nobuo Mizuta.

And now for the Dark Side….1983’s Yokiro – aka The Geisha.

Directed by Hideo Gosha Yokiro takes you to the Taisho Era in this dark tale of two women who live very different lives that cross paths. One is the daughter of Ken Ogata’s character Katsugo whose mother was a Geiko that was slain in her attempts to flee with Katsugo. Katsugo is more or less a pimp and sells his daughter Momowaka to the largest Geisha house The Yokiro is run by one of Katsugo’s former mistresses which is a source of much conflict.

Years later Katsugo has a new girl Tamako (played by Atsuko Asano) who decides to become a prostitute later becomes Momowaka’s rival and arch enemy. If ever you had a desire to watch Japanese cat fights, this is your film!

This award winning film spans the Taisho Era in vivid color and locales. It is a unique time piece and one engrossing drama to own.

Now there is one last film I previously failed to mention mostly in part because it because it is not a Geisha film. It’s often mistaken for one by those not familiar with the world of the Geiko.

The film I am talking about is Akira Kurosawa’s final love story “The Sea is Watching.” This film was directed by Kei Kuma who was handpicked by Kurosawa’s son. Set in the late Edo period, we are introduced to the life of a fallen woman named O-Shin (played by Nagiko Tohno) who harbors the love of a young Samurai.
Fate is not on her side as we watch her fall in love and her descent into a sea of heartbreak. I won’t spoil the film for you but I can recommend you see this. The Sea is Watching gives us a stark contrasting world to that of the Geiko. The production value and vivid cinematography is outstanding for a film of this caliber.

So there you have it. I have presented you my take on films covering the hidden world of the Geisha. These films provide a cross section of insight into their culture of tradition and mystery. For those of us not born and raised in Japan it is impossible to fully understand the world of the Geisha without living it yourself. Now don’t get me wrong. I love my Samurai films but ever since watching NHK’s Taiga Drama Atsuhime and the later Ooku Series with its subsequent film the subject of the Geisha deserved another look.

Now if you are a non-Japanese woman who would actually like to see if they could live that life if only for a moment there are resources on the internet where you can find Geisha houses that will give you a five day training course that gives you an idea of what Maiko life is like. If that's you, watch Hannari first. On the other hand, if you are a guy like me who dreams of spending the night partying with a full blown Geiko then you’ll just have to do like me and hopefully make some friends along the way in order to get someone to vouch for you. If that man is you let me know! You would have my gratitude!


  1. I saw the Hannari documentary in 2006 in Beverly Hills and I met the Geiko who attended. Her name was Makoto. The director was there as well and took questions after the viewing. Makoto took questions as well. It was incredible. Unfortunately I forgot my camera that night and did not get a picture of me with her. However, I did get another photo of her from that night from someone else who was there and I posted about it back in '06. Here is the link to the post.


    It was a great documentary and it was incredible to meet Makoto and great to see her in kimono and make-up.

    I also watched "The Sea is Watching". Entertaining movie.

  2. Live Geiko in LA? Wow! That must have been awesome! I would have loved to have known about that at the time. Thank you for providing your post. I always appreciate your comments.