I remember the first time I watched Memoirs of a Gheisha close to 14 years ago. And the second time. And the third time. And the fascination I’ve developed for anything Japanese. Kimonos, tea ceremony, hair styles, even those silly flip flops.
So you’re probably wondering – if I liked it this much, how come I didn’t read the book? Isn’t the book supposed to be way better than the movie adaptation? That’s why. I liked the movies so much that I thought by reading the book, somehow, the experience I’ve had would be diminished, tarnished. But then I thought – what if it glows even better now that I have the full story?
So I’ve read the Memoirs.
Though Sayuri was completely fictional, the author went to great lengths to depict the day-to-day life of a Geisha in the Japanese district of Gion. Spanning over several decades, the story follows a young girl from a fishermen village from her 12th birthday to her 40th, showing the life of pre-war, war and post-war Japan.
Chiyo is beautiful – she just doesn’t know it yet. She and her older and plainer looking sister are sold into an Okya – a place were young girls can receive training on how to become a Geisha. Failing the training, they could either remain as house servants or be cast away to the poorer areas where they can earn their keep as prostitutes.
Chiyo fails to escape and while her sister goes on to marry a fisherman back home, Chiyo is stuck at the Okya, where the senior Geisha, Hatsumono, does everything she can to make her life miserable and increase her debt to the matron of the house. Each girl taken in accumulates debt until she is ready for her debut and when she gets appointments to attend parties, she will be paid a modicum amount that goes directly to her house.
More popular Geisha can sing, dance, perform theatrical acts and are well versed in the arts of conversation and entertainment. They are not prostitutes but they will occasionally obtain the favour of an influential man, who then becomes their Danna. Think of it as a sugar daddy. The Danna pays the Geisha’s apartment, clothes, books recitals for her and also pays a hefty amount to the Okya as well. In return, he gets 1-on-1 time with her and she is not allowed to take any partners.
Chiyo’s debut as Sayuri is delayed by Hatsumono but is actually aided by Hatsumono’s rival – the top Geisha in the district, Mameha. It was interesting to see the amount of care given to the clothes worn, to the astrology and star alignments as described in an almanac – and even to omens. I also loved the amount of care given to describing their outfits in great detail.
Though if you were to see an apprentice and a geisha side by side, their collars would be the last thing you’d notice. The apprentice, with her elaborate, long-sleeved Japanese kimono and dangling obi, would probably make you think of a Japanese doll, whereas the geisha would look simpler, perhaps, but also more womanly.
Sayuri turns into a delicate young woman and appears to be very popular, much to Hatsumono’s distaste – who does everything in her power to badmouth her. It’s only when Sayuri gets a Danna – a military general, that Hatsumono loses some of her foothold in the Okya and Sayuri is officially adopted as a daughter.
The main story though, is not just that of how Sayuri becomes a Geisha, but why she does it. An act of kindness in her early days made her fell in love with an elderly gentleman called “The Chairman”. She carries him in her heart until they meet face to face later on in life, him a customer, her – an entertainer.
When the Second World War begins, Sayuri and her Okya are quite comfortable and get tea and ration coupons and even chocolate – luxury items in times of need – all due to her General Danna. It’s only when the General is outed as being an incompetent buffoon – that the hardships start. Without anyone to support them, they need to close their gates and pretty soon, the entire Gion district is closed down. Sayuri tries to get a job anywhere and it’s only due to her previous relationship to Nobu – an ex-flame – that she manages to work in a place where they dye silks. Nobu makes sure she is truly indebted to him and when the war is over, uses Sayuri as a bait to get the government officials to look the other way for their dealings during the war.
He then tries to force her to accept him as a Danna – and while her Okya agrees with the possibility, the Chairman is back in the picture and Sayuri is distressed about what she needs to do to get out of the agreement.
While I don’t agree with the approach she took, it did have the intended effect of having the Chairman pay attention to her and them two getting together after 20+ years of yearning.
The story is beautifully written, filled with adjectives and metaphors and I had to stop and re-read sections to let it fully sink in. Sayuri says she’s of water – meaning that she needs to keep running otherwise it’ll turn stale – and the book follows a similar fashion.
We lead our lives like water flowing down a hill, going more or less in one direction until we splash into something that forces us to find a new course.
Her ascension from poor girl to respected mistress takes years and hard practice and life hasn’t been easy on her. Sometimes it was down to her luck, or meeting the right people.
Something happened to me—one of those trivial things with huge consequences, like losing your step and falling in front of a train.
What I didn’t like about her – she’s too perfect. Even Pumpkin remarks that she couldn’t do anything wrong. BUT – she does look down on the other women – thinking of herself as in a different class with different thoughts. Which I suppose is true.
It’s an empowering exploration of sexuality and sensuality – at the same time tackling sore subjects like slavery and prostitution. It’s an coming of age story and a deep dive into the customs and traditions of turn of the century Japan.