Japan confronts Hollywood absence with geisha film

The film is set in Japan, the characters are quintessentially Japanese and the actress in the title role is ... Chinese. Memoirs of a Geisha is the latest film highlighting how few Japanese have made it in Hollywood.

Based on a novel that raised hackles in Japan for allegedly depicting the traditional hostesses as prostitutes, the movie—co-produced by Steven Spielberg—had a lukewarm reception on its opening weekend in Japan, ranking fourth at the box office.

Adding to the controversy, the top three geisha roles were not given to Japanese.
At a time that Japan and China are growing rivals, the title geisha character, Sayuri, and her rival, Hatsumomo, are played respectively by Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li—both from China. Malaysia’s Michelle Yeoh, also ethnic Chinese, takes the third starring role.

To industry insiders, the reason Chinese actors are pretending to be Japanese in Hollywood is rooted in economics: Japan has a far bigger movie industry, meaning that Japanese actors have less incentive to endear themselves to Hollywood, such as by learning to speak film-quality English.

“Above all, the issue is language. Anyone good at the language can get a chance like I did,” Youki Kudoh, the only Japanese actress to play a main geisha role in the film, said.

Kudoh, who plays Pumpkin, an apprentice geisha who becomes a prostitute for American GIs after World War II, had her United States break when cult director Jim Jarmusch cast her in the 1989 film Mystery Train, about a Memphis-crazed Japanese couple.

She went on to play other Japanese characters in US films, depicting a Japanese woman who travels to Hawaii to marry a stranger in Picture Bride, and, in another film adaptation of a popular book, a murder suspect’s wife in Snow Falling on Cedars.

Ironically, for Memoirs of a Geisha, released in Japan as Sayuri, she needed to learn to be more Japanese. Kudoh (34) took intensive courses in the samisen, the Japanese string instrument often strummed by geishas, as well as singing and, as a non-smoker, she studied how to smoke cigarettes.

“Since I’m the only Japanese in one of the movie’s geisha roles, I had a special feeling about the role,” she said. “I didn’t want to disgrace Japan.”

As Kudoh’s learning experience shows, being Japanese in real life is different from being Japanese in the movies.

“The director considered actresses outside Japan knowing that a geisha is a Japanese role. It required dancing skills and the director himself is a choreographer,” said Yoko Narahashi, who headed casting of Japanese actors for Memoirs of a Geisha, referring to director Rob Marshall of Chicago fame.

“The film was a look by an American at Japan’s unique culture. It’s a fantasy—it’s not a documentary or a true story,” she said.

Narahashi also cast Japanese actors for the 2003 film The Last Samurai, which starred Tom Cruise as a 19th-century American military adviser who learns the code of Japan’s medieval knights.

That film featured Ken Watanabe, arguably Japan’s best-known actor overseas, who also stars in Memoirs of a Geisha as a wealthy businessman who falls in love with the title character.

The number of Hollywood roles for Japanese actors is still small but is increasing, Narahashi said.

“The important thing is that the world is turning its eyes to Japan,” she said.

Not everyone buys the argument. Sheridan Prasso, a US journalist who recently wrote The Asian Mystique, a book critical of how the West perceives Asian women, said that besides casting Chinese women, Memoirs of a Geisha favours flowing Chinese-style robes over Japanese kimonos and choreography that resembles kung fu.

“The interchangeability of Chinese with Japanese, in Hollywood’s view, is only one step above the use of white actors in ‘yellow face’ to play Asian people, which Hollywood used to do in its early days,” Prasso said.

“It is a perpetuation of the ‘all look same’ lens that Western culture uses to view Asia,” she said. “The story reinforces classical stereotypes about Asian women: that Asian women are ever-devoted and obliging to men, the Madame Butterfly myth.”

But Tadao Sato, a prominent Japanese film critic who appears in both print media and television, said the casting controversy simply reflects the differences in the film industry between Japan and China.

“Although the Chinese market has been developing rapidly, its film industry is quiet compared to its TV industry,” he said. “The environment is such in China that both film directors and actors are also eyeing the overseas market.”

Japanese pop culture is winning a greater international following, with animator Hayao Miyazaki able to pull in audiences across the world. But Japan also has such a huge domestic market that popular actors are too busy to take the risks of seeking roles abroad, Sato said.

He said that at least movies such as The Last Samurai and Memoirs of a Geisha show Hollywood is interested in Japan—something that can only be good for Japanese actors.—AFPÃ¥

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