Memoirs of a Geisha follows the life of a Japanese girl, Chiyo, as she grows up in 1920s-onward Japan. Chiyo lives in a “tipsy” house Yoriodo and lives a very simple life. After her mother falls ill, and her father is too old to pay for the medicine on top of everything else, Chiyo’s father sells Chiyo to an okiya, where she is trained to become a geisha. Besides the unfairness of her life as it is, Sayuri must battle Hatsumomo, a cruel senior geisha who hates Sayuri from day one, and the greedy owners of the okiya, Mother and Auntie. Sayuri finds a mentor in senior geisha Mameha, and with her help, ventures a path in hopes of becoming the most successful geisha in Japan—and hopefully win the heart of Ken Iwamura, chairman of Japan’s most important electric company.
As a prelude to my review, I’d like to bring up aesthetics and morality, which we discussed in class earlier this year—basically, whether art and morality should be connected or separated. Autonomists believe they should be separated, aesthetic moralists believe they should be connected. I am an aesthetic moralist, which is important to bring up as I talk about this book.
While writing Memoirs, Golden interviewed renowned and retired geisha Mineko Iwasaki for background information on the life and customs of geisha. This led to two big problems—firstly, Golden had promised Iwasaki that she would remain anonymous, then published her as a source in the book. Because geisha have a traditional code of silence about their work, Iwasaki received a great deal of backlash, including death threats. Secondly, Golden took a few too many liberties when describing the work of geisha, namely that of mizuage and danna. Mizuage, according to Golden’s version of Japanese history, was the tradition of selling an apprentice geisha’s (maiko) virginity to the highest bidder. In Memoirs, this is treated as absolute tradition, while in reality, while bidding on a maiko’s virginity did happen, the maiko was never obligated to accept the offers, and rarely ever did. A geisha’s danna was a wealthy man served as the geisha’s patron, providing money for her expenses and such. Memoirs portrays a geisha and a danna’s relationship as a sexual one, the geisha sleeping with the danna in payment for his money—in reality, danna and geisha rarely have sexual relationships, and if they do, it is much more than ‘casual’ and is not seen as exchange for the danna’s money.
These portrayals of geisha customs have kind of contributed to the way they are seen today—aka, prostitutes. Curiously enough, in the book, there’s a part where Sayuri amusedly debunks the myth that geisha sell their bodies…in the same book where geisha sell their bodies.
In short, enjoying this book can be a little more difficult knowing the harm it does, and I argue that the book’s value gets degraded because of its presentation.
Regarding the story itself:
The first ¾ of the book is what I found to be the most capturing. Sayuri’s travel from being sold to the okiya, separated from her sister, tormented by Hatsumomo, and so forth keep great tension. I was genuinely interested on how Sayuri would do, if she would escape from the okiya, etc. It was easy to dislike Hatsumomo as much as I was supposed to. Golden has a knack for description, and I imagined everything perfectly. The little details that Golden gets right—kimono, dancing and shamisen training, even food—are told in vivid detail. The way he describes character is unique, as he almost always compares them to something else—the character Dr. Crab is named as such for the way he awkwardly bends his arms.
The characters in the book are also interesting. Mameha, Sayuri’s mentor, is kind and wise, while also being mysterious and a bit sketchy. Pumpkin, the other girl at Sayuri’s okiya, was appropriately saddening. Hatsumomo was despicable in the best way. I think Nobu was my favorite character, since I have a fondness for characters who are gruff and blunt but have their soft spots. However, as much as these characters are enjoyable, some of them could have gotten better spotlight, or better outcomes. Of particular note, Sayuri spends a great part of the novel pursuing Ken, who she always refers to as simply “the Chairman”, and we unfortunately do not get as much time with him as wanted. He’s kind for sure, but that’s as much as we can get, since Sayuri spends most of the book unable to get closer to him. Because the Chairman is seen so little, the idea that Sayuri would spend so much of her life chasing him is a bit hard to stomach.
Sayuri herself is a bit of a weak point. She’s…fine. Just fine. She doesn’t really stand out very much, the way she reacts to things do not really give a lot of characters, so on, so forth. She goes through some tough stuff, but never really grieves long about it. Things that she feels so strongly about one chapter, she never references again later. This has the unfortunate side effect of leaving some plot threads loose. Unlike The Lovely Bones, we aren’t meant to put ourselves in Sayuri’s shoes—she’s a character, not a stand-in, that we are supposed to follow. The most character she gets is in the final part of the book, which unfortunately I believe to be the book’s biggest detractor.
The last part of the book can’t be detailed without giving away pretty much everything to read the book for. In short, Sayuri makes some ill choices. It was hard to root for her reading through them, especially when she makes these choices for relatively petty goals. Most things that were built up throughout the whole book get anticlimactic and unfair ends. The final pages can be inspirational, as Sayuri, now old, looks back on her life and the things she’d overcome, but they also include revelations that further sour the book as a whole.
Memoirs has an attention-grabbing beginning and middle but unfortunately goes downhill in quality as it comes to its end. After having so much interest and faith in it at first, finishing the book left me disappointed. This, coupled with the controversies and harm the book has brought, leaves me with really mixed feelings and a reluctance to read it again.