It may be as tricky to question another culture’s ideals of beauty as it is to question its religion. If I now offer a demurral on the delicate subject of the geisha mystique, I hope it will be accepted merely as an expression of personal taste. A beautiful young woman whose breasts have been flattened, her face whitened and painted over with a mask, her body swathed in layers of padding and silk to the extent that she is unable to walk normally but must hobble as gracefully as she can—none of this, as enticements go, raises my pulse rate above its usual listless beat.
There is spectacle enough in Marshall’s movie—rows of geisha trainees aligned in formation like Rockettes, acres of low, cedar-and-bamboo buildings with mountains in the distance—but nothing that comes close to lyricism. What we’re presented with, at first, is a kind of crude fairy tale, in which a country girl, Chiyo, is sold into bondage at a Kyoto geisha house in 1929. The house is ruled by a foul-tempered Mother (Kaori Momoi) and a nasty head geisha, Hatsumomo (Gong Li)—the equivalents of a wicked stepmother and stepsister. But then the teen-age Chiyo (Ziyi Zhang) is rescued by a fairy godmother, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), an older geisha who treats her kindly and teaches her the intricacies of her craft. Golden told this tale from Chiyo’s point of view, as memories of her early hardship and increasing mastery, but the movie, looking from the outside, presents the young Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) as a kind of exquisite punching bag and the teen-ager and the grownup woman as beautiful and tough-souled but opaque. It turns out that Marshall, the director of “Chicago” and numerous stage musicals, can’t keep a narrative moving or create interest in any of his characters. We do not initially understand, for instance, why Hatsumomo is so cruel to Chiyo, and by the time we find out we no longer care. As Hatsumomo, Gong Li is required to throw so many hissy fits that she seems less a geisha than a Mean Girl in a high-school comedy set in Santa Barbara.
Chiyo, lips painted in a crimson circle, does attain a surpassing chic, but her paramount desire, which is to preserve her virginity for the highest bidder and then become the mistress of a handsome married gent (Ken Watanabe) who was once nice to her as a little girl, isn’t very attractive psychologically, and provides little that we can root for. With the best will in the world, a Western audience could applaud Chiyo’s submission to her married protector only with the most severe irony, and Marshall isn’t capable of irony or of any other tonal variation on the literal. The movie lacks a sense of proportion: the filmmakers are so eager to pump up their subject that they don’t let us know that by the nineteen-thirties geisha were in serious decline, and that their dress and their manners, derived from an aristocratic era when elegance might have served an organic function, had become little more than decorative adornment for industrialists and bankers making deals in teahouses—in other words, that many modern Japanese may have regarded them not as unspeakably mysterious and powerful but as an increasingly rarefied and even amusing anachronism.