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Film Review: Memoirs of a Geisha – A Gorgeous Period Drama

Sayuri and The Chairman from Memoirs of a Geisha
Sayuri and The Chairman from Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha is an Oscar-winning period drama which was adapted from the book by Arthur Golden.  It is the story of Sayuri, a famous Geisha, and her extraordinary life.  Though based on real accounts of Geisha lives, this is a fictional story. It stars Ziyi Zhang (House of Flying Daggers), Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai).

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Ziyi Zhang as Sayuri

The film opens in a small fishing village where a young girl, Chiyo who later becomes Nitta Sayuri, and her sister are sold by their father to pay for medicine. She is taken to a geisha house while her sister, who is deemed less attractive, is sold into prostitution. Chiyo is put to work and continually tries to escape to find her sister. However, she misses her chance to run away from the Okiya and is left alone in the world. A chance encounter with a kind man gives her hope and sets her on the path to becoming one of the greatest geishas of her generation. When she is taken under the wing of Mameha, a highly respected Geisha and finally begins to achieve her dream she sets out to find the kind man who helped her many years ago and for whom she harbours a secret love.

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Sayuri and Mameha (Michelle Yeoh)

The decision to film Memoirs of a Geisha in English is a puzzling one even though the film is aimed at a western audience. Similar international projects such as House of Flying Daggers and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were not filmed in English and yet were extremely popular in the west.  However, jarring choice of language aside, it is a moving, beautifully crafted piece of cinema with a gripping story.

All of the performances are executed well with Ziyi Zhang being especially striking as Sayuri, managing to convey a myriad of subtle emotions in a single look. The soundtrack is grand and sweeping, in places quite magical. Every frame of the movie is perfect, the cinematography, the costume and set design, everything is beautiful and carefully considered. It is a joy to watch everything unfold as the story progresses.

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Sayuri performs at her debut.

In some ways, Memoirs of a Geisha behaves like a fairy tale. The heroine comes from humble beginnings and becomes great through hard work and suffering. She harbours a secret love for one high above her that she can only dream of knowing. A geisha’s life though glamorous is an empty one full of sacrifice and sadness. They exist only to entertain and are not permitted lives of their own.  The world the geishas inhabit is portrayed as being fantastical and apart from real life, but it cannot withstand the reality of the coming war.

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Pumpkin (Yuki Kudo) and Sayuri talk of their dreams.

The romance though having only the barest of similarities, in some ways reminded me of Jane Eyre. A seemingly impossible love across different social stations between a young woman and an older, more experienced man. Again, much like Jane Eyre, it develops slowly and secretly with much despair that it will ever truly happen. It is subtle and gently beautiful.

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Sayuri and The Chairman (Ken Watanabe)

The film focuses more on Sayuri’s struggles and the life of a geisha than the love story which may leave romance fans a bit disappointed. However, it  is worth staying with it until its incredibly romantic conclusion, especially if you are fond of beautiful Period Drama. Memoirs of a Geisha is a poetic and visually striking film that will stay with the viewer long after watching.

Photo Credits: Columbia Pictures/ Buena Vista International


Four and a half corset rating

“You had me at hello.”


four heart rating

“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My

feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me

to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

More Film Reviews.

More Period Drama.

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By on October 12th, 2015

About Elinor Cackett

Elinor is a writer and semi-recent graduate of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. She has been writing ever since she could hold a pen but her love affair with fiction started when the entirety of David Eddings’ 'The Belgariad' was read to her at age four. She currently has a couple of books and half a dozen short stories on the go. She spends her free time writing, analysing media and knitting very colourful scarves.

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3 thoughts on “Film Review: Memoirs of a Geisha – A Gorgeous Period Drama”

  1. Great review Elinor! I have adored this movie since I saw it when I was 13 and I am happy to know you enjoyed it as well. I had friends who did not like the romance very much mostly because of the rather large age gap. But I never had a problem with it because no one was being manipulated in anyway and it was consensual. I agree with you about the ending, in fact I think it is still one of the most romantic endings I have seen in film. Another element I have always liked about this film is the historical accuracy of Japanese culture and geisha world. I find it to be a very impressive and beautiful movie.

    • Thanks. Yeah, and the fact that the romance was such a slow burn made it even more romantic when they finally admitted their feelings to one another. I also found the depiction of the culture fascinating too.


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