In Tokyo, 'Geisha' is just a love story

'Memoirs of a Geisha' wins praise, despite controversy over casting Chinese actresses in Japanese roles.

"Memoirs of a Geisha," released in Japan this week as "Sayuri," is little more than a simple love story on one level. It traces the intrigues and rivalries among the women engaged in the lonely and demanding discipline of being a professionally trained singer, dancer, and entertainer for men in Kyoto's entertainment district.

But the decision to cast Chinese actresses in many of the main roles has caused ripples on both sides of the East China Sea, coming as it does amid tensions over Japan's and China's views of Japan's brutal World War II history.

Zhang Ziyi, a Chinese, plays the lead role of a peasant girl sold into a geisha house who struggles to win her livelihood as well as the hand of the man she loves.

In the end, though, the unrequited love story in "Memoirs" - played out between Ms. Zhang's character and a man played by Japanese actor Ken Watanabe - appears likely to win over audiences here. In contrast to some lukewarm US reviews, film critics here gave top marks to the lead Chinese actresses.

On a recent evening in Tokyo's Ginza theater district, viewers almost unanimously praised the film. Ms. Zhang's Japanese accent was a little off the mark, perhaps. And yes, Michelle Yeoh's kimono was slightly too loose for the Malaysian Chinese actress. But those were small quibbles.

"I really enjoyed it. I think the view that Chinese actresses can't play Japanese roles is unwarranted," says Sumiko Kuroiwa, a magazine editor.

Pensioner Fumiko Shirano says she will recommend the film to her friends. The furor over the casting is probably due to the recent tensions with China, she says, but "the movie itself is really good."

Hideki Fukui, who is self-employed, was impressed by the cinematography. He doesn't understand the criticism over the casting. Having Chinese play Japanese characters and vice versa "is a good thing," he says.

Perhaps the most unequivocal rebuttal of the criticisms emerged in the understated act of a former geisha who reportedly sent Zhang several antique kimonos. Although younger generations consider gift-giving a sign of respect and gratitude, at a deeper level in Japan's traditionally group-oriented society, the exchange of gifts symbolically placed the giver and receiver in the same group.

The gift of kimonos from a former geisha conveys a powerful message: We are in the same group - be that geisha, the objects of men's desire, professionals in the entertainment industry, or simply Asians in general.

The cultural crosscurrents swirling around "Memoirs" reflect a tumultuous year for China-Japan relations.

To be sure, the film skirts the issue of Japan's wartime actions by only briefly mentioning Manchuria and limiting scenes of soldiers to the shuttering of the Gion entertainment district in Kyoto. But the fact that Japanese audiences are viewing the movie as as a period-piece love story serves as a testament to Chinese-Japanese cooperation, and contrasts with the often self-flagellating attitudes of many Japanese politicians concerning any clash over the region's war history.

And cross-cultural casting is nothing new when it comes to portraying Japanese or Chinese characters. Chinese-Americans such as Lucy Liu and Kelly Hu have played Japanese roles, and Takeshi Kaneshiro, who is half Japanese, has a long history of playing Chinese roles because of his language skills. In the 2004 hit, "House of Flying Daggers" he played opposite Zhang - and the film generated none of the controversy surrounding "Memoirs."

"Japanese and Chinese cultures are different, but that makes no difference as to whether a Chinese can play the role of a geisha," says Yao Xinxin, a Chinese exchange student studying in Tokyo. "Nobody thinks that the many Japanese actors who appear in Chinese films are incapable" of portraying Chinese characters.

"I don't think it's offensive to China that Ms. Zhang took the role," and 80 to 90 percent of the commentary about "Memoirs" on Chinese websites express a similar view, she says. "On the contrary, I think it's wonderful that she can display her acting skills" and portray some of the positive aspects of humanity in a love story.

Others say some cultural blurring is inevitable because the film is a US production. "A Chinese person probably can't fully understand what it was like to be a geisha," says Yeh Pi-Hsuan, a Taiwanese exchange student. "So it might have been better to use a Japanese actress, but I guess it's OK considering that it's a Hollywood movie."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.