The Dying Art: Memoirs of a Geisha

         Directed by Rob Marshall, released in December, 2005, Memoirs of a Geisha is a celebrated film. Based on a book by Arthur Golden, the film portrays the true confessions of one of Japan's most famous geisha. Nitta Sayuri Vis (Suzuka Ohgo/Ziyi Zhang) taken from her poor family to work as a slave in an influential geisha house. The film begins in 1929, in a small fishing village. Throughout the film we witness her trials. She learns all the painstaking geisha art: dance and music, wearing kimono, elaborate makeup, and hair, pouring sake to reveal just a touch of her inner wrist, and competing with a jealous rival for men's solicitude and the money that goes with it.

         The word "Geisha" means "artist" in Japanese. Geisha are professional female entertainers who entertain guests through various performing arts in tea houses called O-chaya, a tradition that began as far back as the eleventh century. They are trained in many traditional skills, such as Japanese ancient dance, playing instruments such as the Shamisen, wearing kimono, tea ceremony, calligraphy, conversation, singing, flower arrangement, and alcohol serving manners. Geisha will continue to improve their skills throughout their careers.

         A successful geisha must demonstrate beauty, grace, and great artistic talent. She must assert charm, and flawless etiquette. People who have a long time connection with the tea house are invited, and the tea houses do not usually invite new clients without an introduction. Geisha profession is very expensive, with one party costing thousands of U.S. dollars. The total number of geisha in the 1920's was 80,000. Due to the westernization of Japanese culture, the number has dropped to a meager 10,000.

        Contrary to popular belief, geisha are not "expensive, pretty prostitutes." Geisha perform at banquets, business meeting, and tour internationally, sometimes modeling. At these performances the geisha apprentices, "maiko," will perform "Tachikata." "Tachikata" is an ancient form of traditional Japanese dance. The older geisha will perform "Jikata." This is singing and instrumental music playing, usually the Shamisan. The guest of honor is the center of attention for the geisha.

         It is appropriate that a geisha have a patron, "danna," who may or may not be involved emotionally with each other. They are also economically and sexually involved; however, this is completely up to the geisha. Until recently, Japanese culture advocated arranged marriages to preserve rank in the social world, rather than for the personal happiness of the people involved. So, these wealthy men developed a relationship with a geisha, having two women in his life: his wife and his lover. This situation was helpful for women from underprivileged families who would not have an opportunity to marry well. This was a way for them to be a significant part of upper society and have a part in choosing her patron.

         Wives of the men who have geisha are usually not threatened by the geisha, since it is untypical for that relationship to be involved in love. Geisha often will perform for the wives' of their clients at important festivals and weddings. The wife of a man with a geisha will often seek help in convincing the husband of something important to that family.

         The dark side of geisha is one that is surprising. The "Mizuage" is the process that the geisha's virginity is bid on. This usually happens at the alarming age of eleven or twelve! This was outlawed in 1958 by Japan's anti-prostitution law. In addition to the loss of innocence at such a young age, the girls will lose a patch of hair on their scalp due to the elaborate and very heavy jewelry worn of their heads.

         The art of geisha is a dying one. The westernization of Japanese culture changes the family structure. Geisha were mostly used for men in arranged marriages, which is not very common in this century. Although the art of geisha is not as glamorous as it seems, it will be a shame to see such an intrinsic part of Japanese culture fade away.

Marilyn Kennon

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