Note: I am still on vacation, this is a pre-scheduled post. Apologies in advance for any delays in commenting back!
Thank you to the talented CW of Read, Think, Ponder for creating this tag and for tagging me! It allows me to revisit one of the most memorable reads from my high school days. It also fits nicely into the current Japan theme of the blog. There are also some photos from my trip to Kyoto last year at the end of this post!
In this tag, you will be reviewing a book you read three or more years ago (if you started reading less than three years ago, tell us about your first book). The best part: you will be reviewing the book purely from memory. I hope you all have fantastic memory (because I certainly don’t)!
Give a summary of the book without rereading it or looking up details online.
I read Memoirs Of A Geisha in high school, around the time the movie came out (2004-2005!). I remembered being quite enchanted by the world painted by Arthur Golden, and I did not realise the depiction were not wholly accurate until years later. Since I’ve found out about the misrepresentations in the book, I’ve regarded the book with a mixture of nostalgia and disappointment – although I still admit to liking it.
Warning that everything I say below is probably hugely inaccurate OR contains spoilers, since I did read this 10 years ago. I also read Geisha of Gion by Mineko Iwasaki earlier on this year, so I think some of the plot points I mention might have come from that book instead. They are quite similar as Memoirs Of A Geisha was based off Iwasaki’s life.
The book is light on plot, as it follows a young girl’s journey from poverty to becoming a well-known geisha. I can’t quite recall her real name, but I remember that when she became a geisha, she became known as Sayuri. She was regarded as beautiful and unique because she had gray eyes, I recall this as I was annoyed the author had to erase her Japanese characteristic -there’s nothing wrong with brown eyes! Sayuri suffered a lot of hardship in order to become a geisha, as Matsumoto, an older geisha in her okiya was determined to ruin her career before it started.
Matsumoto became Sayuri’s ‘older sister’, a senior figure meant to guide her through her apprenticeship. This is obviously disastrous though I don’t remember the exact details. Sayuri also fell in love with an older gentleman when she was younger, and pines for him throughout most of the book. She is acquainted with him when she becomes a geisha, but instead of catching his attention – she is linked with his right hand man instead. There’s also a mizuage where they sold off her virginity, which was given to a creepy old doctor. Later on, World War II arrives and Gion Kobu had to shut down. Sayuri did get her bittersweet ending with the love of her life.
How do you feel about the book?
As mentioned above, this book was my door into the mysterious world of geisha and traditional Japan, so I still regard it with some fondness. Unfortunately, when I was younger I took printed words as gospel and believed many of the things stated in the book as fact. Google-fu later on in life revealed that the book was actually littered with inaccuracies, especially with regards to the Japanese cultural traditions. I found a very good chapter-by-chapter analysis by Fuyou-hime on deviantart that I highly recommend reading through. It did teach me to not rely on fiction, but to do my own research. Nowadays, I am extra sensitive when I read books set in different cultural settings – and I constantly seek out reviews or opinions of people familiar with the culture before reading it myself.
In saying that, I did really enjoy reading Sayuri’s story – even when I was a naive high school student, I could still sense that the book portrayed all of the women in it as victim of their society. I couldn’t help but feel bad for them. I found the book very emotionally engaging. Nonetheless, knowing that the geisha community had an overwhelmingly negative response to the book makes me feel conflicted about liking this book. The very people the book was trying to represent disagreed with its portrayal of their society – and as the part I liked most about the book was the inclusion of Japanese culture, how much of it is REALLY enjoyable? The book was also problematic in the way it too agency away from women who were traditionally independent artisans.
Something I briefly wanted to address though is the Arthur Golden’s representation of geisha as high class courtesans. I felt his direction in this telling was incredibly muddled. On the one hand, Sayuri took pride in her career and did not see herself as an artist – that she and her fellow geisha were art made life. At the same time, the book spent an incredible amount of time dwelling on the question of sex, whether it’s the mizuage procedure or via the predatory nature of the men in the book. For someone who intended to show geisha as artisans instead of prostitute, I felt that Arthur Golden only deepened the misunderstanding. Furthermore, he portrayed geisha as indentured servants of the okiya, I know it’s something that Mineko Iwasaki strongly disagrees with. However, when I read her book and how she was sold into the profession by her parents, I have to question if Arthur Golden was wholly inaccurate.
3. The Epilogue
Look up the details of the book and see if your memory is accurate!
Overall, I am happy to report that I remembered the book quite well, as I was accurate on most of the main plot points. However, I completely forgot about Mameha! She is a popular geisha who helped Sayuri rise to success. Through her help, Sayuri became adopted officially into the okiya and usurped Matsumoto’s position. I recall Mameha as a positive force when I was younger – though a reread revealed that she was one of the most manipulative players in the game. She used Sayuri to dispose of her rival, Matsumoto – and she met a similarly sad ending.
I also remember being quite scared of Nobu, one of Sayuri’s suitors when I was younger. However, I actually found him a very sympathetic character during my reread. It’s funny how your reading taste changes when you are older – I found myself caring for characters I dismissed previously. Even Matsumoto, who I vehemently disliked as a teen, prove to be a magnetic and complex woman on the reread.
When I began the reread, I thought that I would dismiss a lot of the things in Memoirs Of A Geisha now that I have a better understanding of the geisha culture through non-fiction readings. Certainly, there was an incredible amount of male gaze in the book as well, with a lot of sexist and crude jokes on the women’s expense. The author seemed to believe that geisha are employed in a profession that is primarily to please men – rather than respecting these women as independent artists. You might think that I hated the book on my second read. However, it’s not as simple as that. I guess this is when I have to admit I’m one of those people who can enjoy problematic work. I am glad I can now recognise cultural mistakes, yet I’m also happy I still enjoy aspects of one of my old favourites despite recognising these flaws. Growing up does not necessarily mean discarding all the things you’ve loved, it just means seeing them through a different perspective.
EXTRA: Kyoto Of Modern Day.
I felt that I knew Kyoto even before arriving, as I grew up reading about it through this book and others like it. I’ve mentioned in one of my previous post that it’s one of my favourite cities in the world, I’ll show you snippets of my adventures to tell you why below – with extracts from the book 😉
As for Kyoto, it sounded as foreign to me as Hong Kong, or even New York, which I’d once heard Dr Miura talk about.
The main street of Gion is not quite rife with culture as it once was, replaced with souvenir stores and trigger happy photographers. However, wander down its side streets and you’ll be rewarded with visions from the past. A short walk from this vantage point takes you to the river Kamo, as well as the famous kabuki theatre of Minamiza.
I rushed to Shijo Avenue and ran all the way to its end at the eastern edge of Gion, where Gion Shrine stood. I climbed the steps, but I felt too intimidated to walk beneath the great two-storey entrance gate with its gabled roof, and walked around it instead.
My friends and I stumbled upon Gion Shrine (aka Yasaka Shrine) by accident, after a delirious day of walking around drinking in the sights of Higashiyama. We did not know its significance, so we took a few quick pictures, ate some takoyaki from a nearby festival stall – and quickly departed. I will make sure I will give it its due attention during my visit this year!
When we stepped outside, I couldn’t help stopping for a moment to take in the sunset, which painted the sky behind the distant hills in rusts and pinks as striking as the loveliest kimono – even more so, because no matter how magnificent a kimono is, your hands will never glow orange in its light.
Sunsets are always breathtaking, but this particular one, which greeted us as we exited Nanzenji, halted me in my track. The unbelievable cotton candy coloured clouds, set against little wooden houses glowing in the dark, made for one of the most memorable moment of my trip. Lets forget the fact that I was unbelievably lost by this stage, and had to ask a policeman in broken Japanese to find my way back to the hotel.
The photos above are from my 2014 trips, I’ll update with more recent ones (hopefully!) in my next post.