In his literary debut, Arthur Golden parlays his academic training in Japanese history and culture into a Dickensian first- person narrative of a geisha girl’s rise to prominence in pre-World War II Japan. As a product of meticulous research, Memoirs of a Geisha provides a detailed portrait of a little-known but much mythologized profession. In other respects, the novel has its weaknesses: The characterizations are often two-dimensional and thin (as was true for Charles Dickens’s work at times), set scenes can take on a touristy aesthetic (Sayuri never forgets she is speaking to an American audience), and the style suffers from a forced metaphorical lyricism. Golden knows how to maintain dramatic tension during the narrator’s struggle to free herself from slavery and attain geisha status, but her role as a passive observer of Japanese culture flattens the novel once she grows up.
In spite of these lapses, the novel shows Golden’s grasp of the 1930’s Japanese milieu, which helps the reader immerse him- or herself in a landscape interestingly apposite to the familiar American culture, a secretive world where geishas are obliged to keep quiet about what they learn from powerful men. Practitioners of a profession that has no real equivalent in America, geishas resemble cultured call girls who train for years in the fine arts of dance, music, makeup, fashion, and socializing. Compared to other Japanese women, geishas are exotic cultural creations. Their kimonos, the colorfully decorated robes, are often worth as much as a fine art object. Their white makeup accentuates their skin so as to make their necks and other exposed areas more erotic. Their hairdos are elaborate enough to require geishas to use little wooden cradles for their necks when they sleep, so that these coiffures are not disturbed. In many respects, geishas are the fantastical creations of male desire, and there is an odd dissonance between their artistic ability and their more debased utilitarian function as hostesses and flirts. Ever the master at maintaining appearances, the geisha knows how to act, disguise her true emotions, and use her social wiles to further herself. The geisha possesses the writer’s ability to play a role in much the same way that a man may inhabit a female persona in drag, which perfectly suits Golden’s technique. On the job, geishas mostly attend teahouse parties, serve sake (Japanese wine), play drinking games, and entertain boorish businessmen with self- conscious glimpses of their wrists or a lewd joke. Compared to the many apprentice years of learning dance and singing, their actual work can resemble drunken fraternity parties.
Nitta Sayuri begins her story as Chiyo, a peasant girl in the small fishing village of Yoriodo. A local fish merchant sells her and her sister into slavery in Kyoto. While her uglier sister is forced into prostitution, Chiyo is suddenly orphaned out to an okiya, or geisha house, where she must work to pay off the price of her purchase and any other expenses she incurs in her apprenticeship toward becoming a geisha. If she fails, she will work in drudgery as a maid for life. The premier geisha of the okiya is Hatsumomo, a beautiful but viciously competitive woman who supports everyone else in the household by attending teahouse parties into the night. Hatsumomo has limitations as a character, as nothing is shown of her but her wicked side, but her instinctual loathing for Chiyo’s threatening young beauty enlivens the novel. Hatsumomo entices Chiyo into trying to escape the okiya. Not knowing the consequences of her actions (she is only twelve years old), Chiyo tries to escape and join her sister by climbing over the rooftops of the adjoining okiyas, but she ends up trapped and further in debt than ever. In despair of ever breaking free from her bound servitude, she runs into the chairman of an electrical appliance company, and his unexpected act of kindness persuades her to seek her freedom through becoming a geisha instead of by escaping.
Chiyo decides to rough it out and, with the help of another, nicer “older sister” geisha named Mameha, starts to succeed as an apprentice. Hatsumomo does everything she can to stop her. For example, Hatsumomo follows the newly named Sayuri around Gion, spreading lies about her whenever she can. When it comes time for Sayuri to put her virginity on the auction block, so to speak, and sell her mizuage to the highest bidder, Hatsumomo tells prospective older suitors that Sayuri already lost her virginity with a young boyfriend. Sayuri and Mameha must wait until Hatsumomo’s treachery...
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At Mr. Tanaka’s large house, Chiyo plays with his friendly daughter Kuniko Tanaka on their expansive property. The girls get along well, and Chiyo feels excited to have Kuniko as a sister. At dinner, Chiyo marvels at how much food Mr. Tanaka’s family eats in one meal. After dinner, Mr. Tanaka leaves the house. While Satsu and Kuniko’s mother wash the dishes and talk, Kuniko tells Chiyo to come with her. Kuniko says that every night she secretly follows her father when he leaves after dinner. The girls follow him to a teahouse where they peer inside through a hole in the wall. Chiyo sees Mr. Tanaka and four other men laughing and being served by a woman wearing a green kimono, an elaborate hairstyle, and white makeup. Though the woman isn’t particularly attractive, Chiyo is impressed by her glamorousness. Kuniko tells Chiyo that she is a geisha.
The naïve and inexperienced Chiyo holds onto the fantasy that Mr. Tanaka is going to adopt her even after Ms. Fidget’s examination. The strength of Chiyo’s conviction shows just how powerful a fantasy can be for a person who wants to escape reality. As a geisha, Chiyo will be responsible for crafting these fantasies for men—who want to believe that the beautiful geisha truly admire and adore them. Chiyo will perhaps be so successful at crafting these illusions because she herself knows the power of fantasy and escapism.