A review of “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Jeanne Aufmuth


Stars: ** 1/2

Rating: PG-13 for adult subject matter and sexual content

Run Time: 2 hours, 17 minutes



Chicago’s” Rob Marshall tackles Arthur Golden’s stylish novel with melodramatic grace and a large dollop of Hollywood flash.

The mystique of the Japanese geisha is legendary. Agony and beauty live side by side for the woman who is not permitted to choose her own destiny and who exists in a floating world of shadows.

Young Sayuri (Suzuka Ohgo) is unceremoniously torn from her fishing family in the late 1920s to work as a servant in a Kyoto geisha house. She is borne of rough stock but exudes a sweetly seductive aura and boasts eyes the color of rain. 

The established geisha are jealous of Sayuri, in particular Hatsumomo (Gong Li), an evil wench who goes to great lengths to keep the spotlight shining on herself. As Sayuri blossoms into a young woman (Ziyi Zhang) fate throws her a number of curveballs and a yearning love for powerful businessman The Chairman (Ken Watanabe) who only has eyes for another. 

Hatsumomo attempts to outwit, outlast and outplay Sayuri but under the tutelage of master geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) the fledgling trainee develops into a dominant and desirable player. World War II interrupts Sayuri’s swift rise to stardom and she is forced to flee to the country and work the rice fields in order to survive.

Despite his mainstream-heavy sensibility Marshall has crafted a textured film companion to Golden’s stunning masterwork. The essence of feminine authority is left intact and the relentless mating dance between geisha and client is deliciously wrought.

The war years cast a pall on the narrative as well as on the charm of the geisha experience, but subtly allow for exploration of the prostitute versus courtesan concept and the fine line that divides the two.

Best of show: budding adolescents in the throes of geisha training and a scintillating performance by Zhang on the special night that Sayuri makes her formal debut as the sparkling gem of the geisha season.

Colleen Atwood’s costumes are sumptuous, the narrative clean and the work of lead actresses Li, Zhang and Yeoh incomparable. Unfortunately Marshall plays it heavy-handed for awards season, choosing detachment over passion and tweaking a potentially bittersweet climax into a dumbed-down gusher of a finish.