The Secret Life of Geisha is a well-made and intriguing overview of its subject. The 1999 television documentary first aired on A&E when Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha was a red-hot book but still a long way from becoming a blockbuster movie. As things turned out, Golden's intricately-researched novel ironically was adapted into an alarmingly inauthentic movie that ignored the book's primarily appeal. Though The Secret Life of Geisha is not without problems of its own, it's a better source of information for Westerners interested in learning more about this singularly Japanese profession and cultural icon.
The 93-minute show is well-organized, with about a third of the program devoted to an informative history of geisha, from their introduction in Japan in the early 1600s, through the Edo Period, Meiji Restoration, World War II, and the American Occupation. This is intercut with much more intimate and interesting scenes of modern geisha on the job, focusing on two woman: Yuiko, a 19-year-old maiko (apprentice geisha); and Mameka, a wealthy and experienced geisha who acts as Yuiko's sensei (teacher).
The documentary is at its best when it simply follows them around and takes note of fascinating little details. For example, Yuiko's traditional "split peach" hairstyle requires weekly visits to a highly specialized maiko stylist, who supplements Yuiko's own long black hair with little hair pieces. The style is so severe that at night maiko must sleep with their hair positioned on wooden blocks, and cannot wash their hair themselves - they have to wait until the next visit to the stylist. Worse, all the primping and pulling often result in prematurely bald patches, a disconcerting sight on a 19-year-old girl.
The documentary's single biggest achievement is that is dispels western world misconceptions about geisha. The Secret Life of Geisha basically says that if you think of geisha only as dolled-up prostitutes than you're completely missing the point and appeal of geisha as genuine artists (in traditional dance, etc.) who simultaneously present themselves, their movements, their manner of conversation, as works of art. Conversely, if you think a form of prostitution doesn't enter into a geisha's life, particularly the selling of her virginity at the end of maiko training, then you're simply naive.
The documentary does a good job distancing genuine geisha, who are mainly concentrated in Kyoto and who number only about 100 in all of Tokyo, from the simple prostitutes that serviced gullible American G.I.s during the Occupation, women that passed themselves off as "gee-sha." Geisha are also distinguished from the modern-day "Hot Springs Geisha" who work resort towns like Atami. Crudely entertaining busloads of tourists, to call these women true geisha is like calling McDonalds' Chicken McNuggets real chicken.
Although the show notes that a maiko's intensive training program lasts five years and costs upwards of $500,000, curiously there's little mention of the process and cost of hiring geisha for the evening. Naive westerners visiting Kyoto often toy with the idea of spending an evening at a geisha house, unaware that you can't even get into such places without a formal, well-connected introduction, and that a typical night out might easily cost $5,000-10,000.
Despite its myth-squashing intent, The Secret Life of Geisha likewise plays up on the mystery of what is basically a closed society. Actress Susan Sarandon's narration is filled with breathless lines about "secrets behind closed doors," and the sometimes misleading use of film clips punctuate this. Her mangled pronunciation of Japanese names and terms wouldn't be a big deal if it weren't for the fact that it's also jarringly inconsistent. For instance, Mameka's name is variously pronounced "Ma-neeka," "Mami-ka," and "Ma-may-ka," which may confuse viewers into thinking Sarandon is talking about several different people.
There are other small flaws, too. Probably to avoid confusion, Kyoto geisha are never identified as geiko, the proper term. (Geiko basically never call themselves geisha.) And ironically, an obviously inauthentic "geisha" of unknown origin adorns the DVD's cover and main menu screen.
Fortunately, Golden is interviewed extensively for the show, as is Liza Dalby, a cultural anthropologist who became the "first western geisha" in the 1970s. They offer an informed western perspective that balances primarily interviews with Mameka (who, despite living in Kyoto, speaks with a thick Tokyo accent), Yuiko, and other geisha, as well as a few of their patrons. Most of the Japanese interviews, unfortunately, are dubbed into English rather than subtitled.
Video & Audio
The Secret Life of Geisha is presented in its original full-frame format. The image is okay but not spectacular; the program does not appear time-compressed, though there are abrupt fades where the original commercial breaks obviously were. The stereo sound is adequate; there are no subtitle options.
Supplements are limited to useful text. There's a reasonably detailed Glossary, along with helpful Points of Distinction: Maiko vs. Geisha and Yujo vs. Geisha.
The Secret Life of Geisha, though shy of perfection, is an excellent and informed introduction to this unceasingly fascinating world, and serves as a nice alternative to the wild fantasies of Hollywood.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.