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Memoirs of a Geisha is a 2005 film adaptation of the novel of the same name, produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment and Spyglass Entertainment and by Douglas Wick's Red Wagon Productions. It was directed by Rob Marshall. It was released in the United Statesmarker on December 9, 2005 by Columbia Pictures and DreamWorksmarker. It stars Zhang Ziyi, Ken Watanabe, Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh, Youki Kudoh, and Suzuka Ohgo. Ohgo plays the younger Sayuri in the movie, which was filmed in southern and northern California and in several locations in Kyoto, including the Kiyomizu templemarker and the Fushimi Inari shrinemarker.

The film was nominated and won numerous awards, including nominations for six Academy Awards, and eventually won three: Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.

Memoirs of a Geisha revolves around a young girl, named Chiyo, who is sold into the life of a geisha and her struggle as a geisha to find love.

The Japanese release of the film was titled "Sayuri", based on the main character who was renamed as Sayuri in the movie.

The DVD was released on March 28, 2006.


The film, set in Japanmarker During the Showa Era, tells the story of Chiyo Sakamoto (portrayed by Suzuka Ohgo as a child, and by Zhang Ziyi as an adult), who is sold into a life of servitude by her parents when she is nine years old. Chiyo is taken in by the proprietress of a geisha house, Mother (Kaori Momoi), where she works to pay off the debt of her purchase and the soiling of a silk kimono owned by a well-known geisha, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), which Chiyo was blackmailed into defacing by another geisha, Hatsumomo (Gong Li).

One day while crying in the street, the young Chiyo is noticed by the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), who buys her an iced sorbet and gives her his handkerchief. Inspired by his act of kindness, Chiyo resolves to become a geisha so that she may one day become a part of the Chairman’s life. Chiyo, now a young woman, is taken under the wing of Mameha, head of a rival geisha house. Under Mameha's tutelage, the girl Chiyo becomes Sayuri, the most famous geisha in all Gionmarker, Kyoto. Hatsumomo becomes Sayuri's rival and seeks to destroy her; however, Hatsumomo ends up destroying herself instead after setting fire to the okiya.

Sayuri, through her work as a geisha, is reunited with the Chairman, whom she has secretly loved since she was a girl, although she is led to believe he has no memory of who she was before she became a geisha. Her prosperous life is cut short by the outbreak of World War II and while the safety of Sayuri and Mameha is ensured by the Chairman, they must endure a life of hard labour. After the war, Sayuri is reunited with Mameha, and they become geisha once more.

The Chairman arranges to meet Sayuri, where he finally reveals to her that he knows she is Chiyo. He tells her that he was responsible for sending Mameha to her so that she may fulfill her dreams of becoming a geisha. Sayuri finally reveals her love to the Chairman, which she has been harbouring for over fifteen years. The film ends with their loving embrace and a stroll through a beautiful Japanese garden with waterfalls and rocks.




Producer Steven Spielberg had been scheduled to film Memoirs of a Geisha as the follow up to Saving Private Ryan. However fellow DreamWorks executive David Geffen had tried to persuade him not to take on the project as he said I don't think it's good enough for him. Whether or not he was dissuaded from the project, he went on to direct A.I. Artificial Intelligence instead.

The three leading actresses (Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, and Michelle Yeoh) were put through "geisha boot camp" before production commenced, during which they were trained in traditional geisha practices of musicianship, dance, and tea ceremony.


Production of the film took place from 29 September 2004 to 31 January 2005. It was decided by the producers that contemporary Japan looked much too modern to film a story which took place in the 1920s and '30s and it would be more cost-effective to create sets for the film on soundstages and locations in the United States, primarily in California. The majority of the film was shot on a large set built on a ranch in Thousand Oaksmarker, California which was a detailed recreation of an early twentieth-century geisha district in Kyoto, Japan. Most interior scenes were filmed in Culver Citymarker, California at the Sony Pictures Studiosmarker lot. Other locations in California included San Franciscomarker, Moss Beachmarker, Descanso Gardensmarker in La Cañada Flintridgemarker, Sacramentomarker, Yamashiro's Restaurant in Hollywood, the Japanese Gardens at the Huntington Library and Gardensmarker in San Marino, Hakone Gardensmarker in Saratoga, and Downtown Los Angelesmarker at the Belasco Theater on Hill Street. Towards the end of production, some scenes were shot in Kyoto, Japan.


In post-production one of the tasks of the sound editors was to improve upon the English pronunciation of the international cast. This sometimes involved piecing together different clips of dialogue from other segments of the film to form new syllables from the film's actors, some of whom spoke partially phonetic English when they performed their roles on-set. The achievement of the sound editors earned them an Academy Award nomination for Best Achievement in Sound Editing.

Notes on facts

Iwasaki was one of several geisha author Arthur Golden interviewed while researching his novel Memoirs of a Geisha. According to Iwasaki, she agreed to speak with Golden on the condition that her involvement would be kept confidential, but Golden revealed her identity by mentioning her name in the book's acknowledgments, as well as several national interviews. After Memoirs was published, Iwasaki received criticism and even death threats for violating the traditional geisha code of silence.

Iwasaki felt betrayed by Golden's use of information she considered confidential, as well as the way he twisted reality, and denounced Memoirs of a Geisha as being an inaccurate depiction of the life of a geisha. Iwasaki was particularly offended by the novel's portrayal of geiko engaging in ritualized prostitution. For example, in the film the main character Sayuri's virginity (called mizuage in the film) is auctioned off to the highest bidder. Iwasaki stated that not only did this never happen to her, but that no such custom existed at all in Gion.

Part of Iwasaki's displeasure with Memoirs may also have been because the character Sayuri seems obviously modeled on Iwasaki, with many of the book's main characters and events having parallels in Iwasaki's life. These people and experiences are often portrayed negatively in Memoirs, even when their real-life counterparts were positive for Iwasaki.

Mizuage today is not, as the film portrays it, the auctioning off of an apprentice geisha's virginity. It is simply a ceremony involving a haircut and a dinner party that signifies the coming of age of a geisha, completing her transition from apprentice geisha (maiko) to a full-fledged one (geiko). The financial arrangement was done until the 1950s, but it is no longer done so today.


In the Western world, the film received mixed responses. In Chinamarker and Japanmarker, responses were sometimes very negative due to various controversies that arose from the film's casting and its relationship to history.

Western box office and reviews

The Britishmarker reviews for Memoirs of a Geisha were generally mixed. The New Statesman criticized Memoirs of a Geisha 's plot, saying that after Hatsumomo leaves, "the plot loses what little momentum it had and breaks down into one pretty visual after another" and says that the film version "abandons the original's scholarly mien to reveal the soap opera bubbling below". The Journal praised Ziyi, saying that she "exudes a heartbreaking innocence and vulnerablity" but said "too much of the characters' yearning and despair is concealed behind the mask of white powder and rouge". London's The Evening Standard compared Memoirs of a Geisha to Cinderella and praised Gong Li, saying that "Li may be playing the loser of the piece but she saves this film" and Gong "endows Hatsumomo with genuine mystery". Eighteen days later, The Evening Standard put Memoirs of a Geisha on its Top Ten Film list. Glasgow's Daily Record praised the film, saying the "geisha world is drawn with such intimate detail that it seems timeless until the war, and with it the modern world comes crashing in".

In the United States, the film managed $57 million during its box office run. The film peaked at 1,654 screens, facing off against King Kong, The Chronicles of Narnia and Fun with Dick and Jane. During its first week in limited release, the film screening in only eight theaters tallied up a $85,313 per theater average which made it second in highest per theater averages behind Brokeback Mountain for 2005. International gross reached $158 million.Overall, the American reviews were mixed. Illinois's Daily Herald said that the "[s]trong acting, meticulously created sets, beautiful visuals, and a compelling story of a celebrity who can't have the one thing she really wants make Geisha memorable". The Washington Times called the film "a sumptuously faithful and evocative adaption" while adding that "[c]ontrasting dialects may remain a minor nuisance for some spectators, but the movie can presumably count on the pictorial curiosity of readers who enjoyed Mr. Golden's sense of immersion, both harrowing and esthetic, in the culture of a geisha upbringing in the years that culminated in World War II".

The film scored a 35% "Rotten" rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 54/100 on Metacritic, meaning "mixed or average review."

Casting controversy

Controversy arose during casting of the film when some of the most prominent roles, including those of the geishas Sayuri, Hatsumomo and Mameha, did not go to Japanese actresses. Zhang Ziyi (Sayuri) and Gong Li (Hatsumomo) are both Chinese, whereas Michelle Yeoh (Mameha) is an ethnic Chinese from Malaysiamarker. More notable is the fact that all three were already prominent fixtures in Chinese cinema.

The film-makers defended the decision, however, and attributed "acting ability and star power" as their main priorities in casting the roles and director Rob Marshall noted examples such as Irish-Mexican actor Anthony Quinn being cast as a Greek man in Zorba the Greek.

Opinion in the Asian community was mixed. To some Chinese, the casting was offensive because they mistook geisha for prostitutes, and because it revived memories of wartime Japanese atrocities. The Chinese government canceled the film's release there because of such connections, and a website denounced star Zhang Ziyi as an "embarrassment to China." This was exacerbated by the word , a Japanese name for geisha used in the Kansaimarker region, which includes Kyoto. The second character ( ) can be understood by some to mean "prostitute", though it actually had a variety of meanings and there was a clear distinction between geisha and prostitutes which were called in Japan. The character 妓 means "prostitute" in Chinese, and the correct translation into Chinese of the word "geisha" is 艺伎 (traditional Chinese: 藝伎), which does not use it. Some Japanese have expressed offense that people of their own nationality had not gotten the roles. Other Asians defended the casting, including the film's main Japanese star Ken Watanabe who said that "talent is more important than nationality." Other Asian actors such as Sandra Oh have in the past also defended inter-Asian acting

In defense of the film, Zhang spoke:

Film critic Roger Ebert pointed out that the film was made by a Japanese-owned company, and that Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi outgross any Japanese actress even in the Japanese box office.

Chinese responses

The film received some hostile responses in China, including its banning by the Chinese government. It is important to note the modern political context between China and Japan when Memoirs of a Geisha debuted in 2005. Relations between the two nations were particularly tense due to three main factors: Japan had recently revised its history textbooks, which downplayed its wartime atrocities against China; secondly, Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a number of visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors all Japan's war dead, including some who were convicted war criminals, which was denounced by China’s foreign ministry as honoring them; and lastly, China helped to ensure Japan did not receive a seat on the UN Security Council. Female writer Hong Ying argued that “Art should be above national politics”;. Nevertheless, the release of Memoirs of a Geisha into this politically charged situation added to cultural conflict within and between China and Japan.

The film was originally scheduled to be shown in cinemas in the People's Republic of Chinamarker on February 9, 2006. The Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film and Television decided to ban the film on February 1, 2006 considering the film as "too sensitive". In doing so, it overturned a November decision to approve the film for screening.

The film is set in Japan during World War Two, when the Second Sino-Japanese War was taking place. During this time, Japan captured and forced Chinese women as “comfort women” for their men. Controversy arose in China from an apparent confusion of equating geisha with prostitution, and thus the connection with, and reminder of, comfort women being used in Japan at that time.

Newspaper sources, such as the Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post and the Shanghai Youth Daily, quoted the fears that the film may be banned by censors; there were concerns that the casting of Chinese actresses as geishas could rouse anti-Japan sentiment and stir up feelings over Japanese wartime actions in China, especially the use of Chinese women as forced sex workers.

Japanese responses

On a visit to Tokyo to promote the film, Zhang Ziyi received a mysterious parcel and letter, revealed to have been sent by an elderly Japanese woman who had once worked as a geisha. In her letter, the woman stated that she had been touched by the trailer of the film and expected the movie to bring back fond memories for her and her friends. Inside the parcel were several exquisitely worked antique kimono. Zhang Ziyi was moved to tears by the gesture and sent the woman an invitation to the film's Japanese premiere. She also promised to wear one of the kimono to the event as a sign of her gratitude.

Awards and nominations

  • Won: Best Achievement in Art Direction
  • Won: Best Achievement in Cinematography
  • Won: Best Achievement in Costume Design
  • Nominated: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score
  • Nominated: Best Achievement in Sound Editing
  • Nominated: Best Achievement in Sound Mixing

Golden Globe
  • Won: Best Original Score - Motion Picture (John Williams)
  • Nominated: Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama (Zhang Ziyi)

National Board of Review
  • Won: Best Supporting Actress (Gong Li)

Satellite Awards
  • Won: Outstanding Screenplay, Adapted (Robin Swicord)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Motion Picture, Drama
  • Nominated: Outstanding Director (Rob Marshall)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama (Zhang Ziyi)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Actress in a Supporting Role, Drama (Gong Li)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Art Direction & Production Design (John Myhre)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Cinematography (Robert Elswit)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Costume Design (Colleen Atwood)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Original Score (John Williams)

BAFTA Awards
  • Won: The Anthony Asquith Award for Achievement in Film Music (John Williams)
  • Won: Cinematography (Dion Beebe)
  • Won: Costume Design (Colleen Atwood)
  • Nominated: Best Actress in a Leading Role (Zhang Ziyi)
  • Nominated: Production design
  • Nominated: Make Up and Hair

Screen Actors Guild Awards
  • Nominated: Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role (Zhang Ziyi)

NAACP Image Awards
  • Nominated: Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture (Zhang Ziyi)

Soundtrack album

The Memoirs of a Geisha Official Soundtrack featured Yo Yo Ma performing the cello solos, as well as Itzhak Perlman performing the violin solos. The music was composed and conducted by John Williams.

Track listing

  1. "Sayuri's Theme" – 1:31
  2. "The Journey to the Hanamachi" – 4:06
  3. "Going to School" – 2:42
  4. "Brush on Silk" – 2:31
  5. "Chiyo's Prayer" – 3:36
  6. "Becoming a Geisha" – 4:32
  7. "Finding Satsu " – 3:44
  8. "The Chairman's Waltz " – 2:39
  9. "The Rooftops Of Hanamachi " – 3:49
  10. "The Garden Meeting " – 2:44
  11. "Dr. Crab's Prize " – 2:18
  12. "Destiny's Path " – 3:20
  13. "A New Name... A New Life" – 3:33
  14. "The Fire Scene and the Coming of War" – 6:48
  15. "As the Water..." – 2:01
  16. "Confluence " – 3:42
  17. "A Dream Discarded" – 2:00
  18. "Sayuri's Theme and End Credits" – 5:06



  1. Interview with Spielberg, Stephen J. Dubner, Steven Spielberg Interviews, ISBN 1-57806-113-X
  2. page 135
  3. Lyttle, John. "The Eastern Affront: This Depiction of Oppression Is Decorously Polite." New Statesman 16 Jan. 2006: 47.
  4. "Memoirs of a Geisha." The Journal (Newcastle, England) 13 Jan. 2006: 20.
  5. "Dazzled by the Tricks of an Exotic Trade." The Evening Standard (London, England) 12 Jan. 2006: 34.
  6. "Critic's Choice; Top Ten Films." The Evening Standard (London, England) 30 Jan. 2006: 40.
  7. "GLAD TO BE GEISHA; Beautifully Shot and Brilliantly Acted, This Is an Oscar Favourite MEMOIRS OF A GEISH A ***** 12A." Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland) 13 Jan. 2006: 46.
  8. Defiglio, Pam. "Memorable Epic Takes a Beautiful Look Inside a Mysterious World." Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL) 16 Dec. 2005: 48.
  9. "'Geisha' Rises to Exotic Best; Faithful Book Adaptation Portrays Rivalry of Women." The Washington Times 16 Dec. 2005: D08.
  10. BBC NEWS | Entertainment | Geisha film-makers defend casting
  11. - China cancels release of 'Memoirs of a Geisha'
  12. Watanabe defends casting in 'Geisha' -
  13. :: :: Reviews :: Memoirs of a Geisha (xhtml)
  14. Britannica Online Encyclopaedia/China's Relations with Its Neighbours/Year in Review 2005>
  15. CHINA:'Memoirs of a Geisha' Lost in Political Din
  16. China bans Memoirs of a Geisha | News | Guardian Unlimited Film
  17. World History Connected/Vol.1 No.1/Yoshiko Nozaki: "I'm Here Alive": History, Testimony, and the Japanese Controversy over "Comfort Women".
  18. - Yahoo! News

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