The film was released to mixed reviews from western critics, but was a box office hit and was nominated for and won numerous awards, including nominations for six Academy Awards, and eventually won three: Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. The acting, visuals, sets, costumes, and John Williams' musical score were praised, but was criticized for casting Chinese actresses as Japanese women and the film's style over substance approach. The Japanese release of the film was titled Sayuri, the titular character's geisha name.
Chiyo Sakamoto (Suzuka Ohgo), a young girl from a poverty stricken fishing village, is sold along with her older sister Satsu (Samantha Futerman) into a life of servitude by her aging father. Chiyo is taken in by Mrs. Kayoko Nitta (Kaori Momoi), the Mother (proprietress) of a geisha house in Gion, one of the most prominent geisha districts in Kyoto, whereas Satsu is sold to a prostitution brothel.
At the okiya, Chiyo meets another young girl named Pumpkin (Zoe Weizenbaum), the cranky Granny (Kotoko Kawamura), and the okiya's only working geisha, Hatsumomo (Gong Li) who is famous for her breathtaking beauty. Chiyo soon discovers Hatsumomo is secretly a cruel and jealous woman that views Chiyo as a potential rival due to her striking bluish-gray eyes, along with being a change in Mother's future financial dependence. Hatsumomo then goes out of her way to deliberately make Chiyo's new life miserable by having her take the blame for everything and intentionally withholding information of her sister's whereabouts in the pleasure district. However, Auntie (Tsai Chin) is aware of this and warns Chiyo against trusting and angering Hatsumomo, given her history with the ill-mannered geisha.
Chiyo tracks down Satsu and makes plans to run away together. However, upon returning to the okiya she discovers Hatsumomo with her boyfriend, Koichi (Karl Yune), which is against the rules of the Geisha lifestyle. When they are caught, Hatsumomo attempts to twist the situation by accusing Chiyo of stealing. Chiyo denies this and informs Mother of what she saw in the shed. As a result, everyone is barred from leaving the okiya at night except to attend work engagements, and this further increases Hatsumomo's anger towards Chiyo. On the night of their planned escape, Chiyo attempts to sneak out but falls off the rooftop and is seriously injured. As punishment for dishonoring the okiya, Mother tells Chiyo that she won't invest any more money in her geisha training. She also informs Chiyo that both her parents (Mako and Elizabeth Sung) are dead. Chiyo misses her chance to flee and never sees Satsu again. She is also demoted from geisha training to working as a slave to pay off her increasing debts to Mother.
One day, while crying on a riverbank, Chiyo is noticed by the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) and his geisha companions. He buys her a shaved ice dessert and gives her his handkerchief with some money in it. Inspired by his act of kindness, Chiyo resolves to become a geisha so that she may one day become a part of the Chairman's life.
Several years later, Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh) has begun her training as a maiko under Hatsumomo's tutelage and Chiyo (Zhang Ziyi) is envious of it as she remains a maid under Mother. She is unexpectedly taken under the wing of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), one of Gion's most successful geisha and long time rival of Hatsumomo's. Although initially reluctant, Mother is persuaded by Mameha to allow Chiyo to train as a geisha.
Under Mameha's tutelage, Chiyo becomes a maiko and takes the name of Sayuri. She grows in popularity, and Hatsumomo grows so desperate that she tries to ruin Sayuri's reputation. Predicting this, Mamaeha takes her to a sumo wrestling match where Sayuri is reintroduced to the Chairman, who seems unaware of her previous identity as Chiyo, as well as his business associate Nobu Toshikazu (Kōji Yakusho) (whom Hatsumomo finds repulsive), who takes a liking to her.
Meanwhile, Mameha orchestrates a bidding war for Sayuri's mizuage between two men: Nobu and Dr. Crab (Randall Duk Kim), which will make her a full geisha. Upon learning what Mameha has planned, Hatsumomo spreads cruel rumors that Sayuri has already lost her virginity. However, Sayuri is named the lead dancer for a popular performance, which angers Hatsumomo as she was hoping for Pumpkin to be named the lead. At the performance, she attracts the attention of many men, including the Baron (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) (Mameha's danna), with her performance. When Dr. Crab congratulates Sayuri, she secretly convinces him to listen to a different opinion before taking the word of someone who lies.
The Baron invites Sayuri to his estate for a sakura-viewing party, which Mameha is reluctant to let Sayuri attend but lets her go anyway. When the Baron presents a kimono to Sayuri in private at the party, he undresses her against her will in order to "take a look", but does not go any further.
Sayuri's mizuage is won with a record-breaking bid of fifteen thousand yen. Mother, seeing Sayuri as a financial asset, names her as her adopted daughter and heiress to the okiya. This crushes Pumpkin, who was hoping that she would get adopted so she could have security in her old age, and enrages Hatsumomo. She is then told by Mother that she must give up her spacious room to Sayuri, which further outrages Hatsumomo, who tries to remind her of her previous financial contribution. Mameha later tells Sayuri that the bid had ended up a contest between Dr. Crab and the Baron, Nobu having refused to partake in the bidding because it was against his principles. Mameha let it go to Dr. Crab because of her romantic feelings for the Baron, despite his bid being even higher. When returning home from the mizuage ceremony, Sayuri finds a drunken Hatsumomo in her room, where she has found the Chairman's handkerchief. A fight ensues, during which a gas lantern is knocked over and ignites a fire, and the okiya is partially destroyed by the flames. Hatsumomo is then kicked out of the okiya by Mother, her belongings given to Sayuri, and she is banished from Gion with her fate left unknown.
Sayuri's successful career is cut short by the outbreak of World War II. Sayuri and Mameha are separated, with Sayuri going to the hills to work for a kimono maker, an old friend of Nobu's, and Mameha going to a physician, the Chairman's old friend. After the war, Sayuri is reunited with Nobu, who needs her help with impressing an American Colonel named Derricks (Ted Levine) who has the power to approve funding for the Chairman's firm. Sayuri reunites with Mameha, who now makes a living renting rooms for the poor. Although she is reluctant to return to the geisha lifestyle after what she's been through, she agrees to help impress Derricks. Sayuri is reacquainted with Pumpkin, who is now a flirty escort. Sayuri goes on a trip with Nobu, the Chairman, Mameha, Pumpkin, and the Americans to the Amami Islands.
At Amami, the Colonel propositions Sayuri, but is rejected. Nobu witnesses the incident and confronts Sayuri. He finally confesses his feelings, telling her that he wants to become her danna. Knowing that entering into a relationship with Nobu will destroy any chance of her being with the Chairman, Sayuri is distraught and devises a plan. Mameha catches on to it and warns her against it because of the kindness Nobu has shown her. She wants Sayuri to accept him as her danna and not end up like Hatsumomo did. She refuses and enlists Pumpkin's help to have Nobu catch her seemingly being intimate with the Colonel. However, because of her secret resentment of Sayuri, Pumpkin brings the Chairman instead, having full knowledge of Sayuri's feelings towards him. When Sayuri confronts her, Pumpkin coldly tells her that she did a lot of favors for her in the past and she stole her chances of being adopted by Mother. She hoped by having the Chairman see her with Derricks, he would be disgusted by Sayuri's behavior and she would have to accept Nobu as her danna.
A few days later, after returning to Gion, Sayuri receives a call to go to the teahouse. Sayuri expects to see Nobu, but instead the Chairman comes and finally reveals to her that he has known all along that she was the girl at the riverbank. He tells her that he had told Nobu about the affair after confronting Pumpkin for her behavior, effectively destroying Nobu's affections for Sayuri and his desire to be her danna. He also reveals that he was responsible for sending Mameha to her so that she could fulfill her dreams of becoming a geisha. Sayuri finally reveals her love to the Chairman, and the film ends with their loving embrace and kiss, and a stroll through the garden.Zhang Ziyi as Chiyo Sakamoto / Sayuri Nitta
Suzuka Ohgo as Young Chiyo Sakamoto
Shizuko Hoshi as Elderly Sayuri Nitta (voice-over narrator)
Gong Li as Hatsumomo
Samantha Futerman as Satsu Sakamoto
Mako as Mr. Sakamoto
Elizabeth Sung as Mrs. Sakamoto
Kaori Momoi as Kayoko "Mother" Nitta
Kotoko Kawamura as Grandmother Nitta
Ken Watanabe as Chairman
Kōji Yakusho as Nobu
Michelle Yeoh as Mameha
Youki Kudoh as Pumpkin
Zoe Weizenbaum as Young Pumpkin
Tsai Chin as Auntie
Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as Baron
Cathy Shim as The Baron's Guest
Kenneth Tsang as General
Eugenia Yuan as Korin
Karl Yune as Koichi
Ted Levine as Col. Derricks
Paul Adelstein as Lt. Hutchins
Shortly after the book's release in 1997, the filming rights were purchased for $1 million by Red Wagon’s Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher, backed by Columbia Pictures. The following year, Steven Spielberg planned to make Memoirs of a Geisha as the follow-up to Saving Private Ryan, bringing along his company DreamWorks. In the meantime, Spielberg's DreamWorks partner David Geffen had tried to persuade him not to take on the project, feeling it was "not good enough for him". Prior to Spielberg's involvement, the film was planned to be shot in Japan and with the Japanese language. By 2002, with Spielberg having postponed production for A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can, he stepped down from directorial duties to only produce. Wick and Fisher approached Rob Marshall, who was interested in doing a non-musical after Annie and Chicago. This brought a third company into Memoirs of a Geisha, as Marshall was still signed to release his next film through Chicago distributors Miramax.
The three leading non-Japanese actresses, including Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, and Michelle Yeoh, were put through "geisha boot camp" before production commenced, during which they were trained in traditional geisha practices of musicianship, dance, and tea ceremony.
Production of the film took place from September 29, 2004 to January 31, 2005. It was decided by the producers that contemporary Japan looked much too modern to film a story which took place in the 1920s and '30s and it would be more cost-effective to create sets for the film on soundstages and locations in the United States, primarily in California. The majority of the film was shot on a large set built on a ranch in Thousand Oaks, California which was a detailed recreation of an early twentieth-century geisha district in Kyoto, Japan. Most interior scenes were filmed in Culver City, California at the Sony Pictures Studios lot. Other locations in California included San Francisco, Moss Beach, Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge, Sacramento, Yamashiro's Restaurant in Hollywood, the Japanese Gardens at the Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, Hakone Gardens in Saratoga, and Downtown Los Angeles at the Belasco Theater on Hill Street. Towards the end of production, some scenes were shot in Kyoto, Japan, including the Fushimi Inari Taisha the head shrine of Inari, located in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto.
In post-production, one of the tasks of the sound editors was to improve upon the English pronunciation of the international cast. This sometimes involved piecing together different clips of dialogue from other segments of the film to form new syllables from the film's actors, some of whom spoke partially phonetic English when they performed their roles on-set. The achievement of the sound editors earned them an Academy Award nomination for Best Achievement in Sound Editing.
In the Western hemisphere, the film received mixed reviews. In China and Japan, responses were sometimes very negative due to various controversies that arose from the film's casting and its relationship to history.
Memoirs of a Geisha received mixed reviews from western critics. Illinois' Daily Herald said that the "[s]trong acting, meticulously created sets, beautiful visuals, and a compelling story of a celebrity who can't have the one thing she really wants make Geisha memorable". The Washington Times called the film "a sumptuously faithful and evocative adaption" while adding that "[c]ontrasting dialects may remain a minor nuisance for some spectators, but the movie can presumably count on the pictorial curiosity of readers who enjoyed Mr. Golden's sense of immersion, both harrowing and [a]esthetic, in the culture of a geisha upbringing in the years that culminated in World War II".
The film scored a 35% "Rotten" rating on Rotten Tomatoes; the consensus stated "Less nuanced than its source material, Memoirs of a Geisha may be a lavish production, but it still carries the simplistic air of a soap opera." On Metacritic, the film was given a 54/100 meaning "mixed or average review."
In the United States, the film managed $57 million during its box office run. The film peaked at 1,654 screens, facing off against King Kong, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Fun with Dick and Jane. During its first week in limited release, the film screening in only eight theaters tallied up an $85,313 per theater average which made it second in highest per theater averages behind Brokeback Mountain for 2005. International gross reached $158 million.
The New Statesman criticized Memoirs of a Geisha's plot, saying that after Hatsumomo leaves, "the plot loses what little momentum it had and breaks down into one pretty visual after another" and says that the film version "abandons the original's scholarly mien to reveal the soap opera bubbling below". The Journal praised Zhang Ziyi, saying that she "exudes a heartbreaking innocence and vulnerablity" but said "too much of the character's yearning and despair is concealed behind the mask of white powder and rouge". London's The Evening Standard compared Memoirs of a Geisha to Cinderella and praised Gong Li, saying that "Li may be playing the loser of the piece but she saves this film" and Gong "endows Hatsumomo with genuine mystery". Eighteen days later, The Evening Standard put Memoirs of a Geisha on its Top Ten Films list. Glasgow's Daily Record praised the film, saying the "geisha world is drawn with such intimate detail that it seems timeless until the war, and with it the modern world comes crashing in".
Controversy arose during casting of the film when some of the most prominent roles, including those of the geisha Sayuri, Hatsumomo and Mameha, did not go to Japanese actresses. Zhang Ziyi (Sayuri) and Gong Li (Hatsumomo) are both Chinese, whereas Michelle Yeoh (Mameha) is an ethnic Chinese from Malaysia. More notable is the fact that all three were already prominent fixtures in Chinese cinema.
The film-makers defended the decision, however, and attributed "acting ability and star power" as their main priorities in casting the roles, and director Rob Marshall noted examples such as the Mexican actor Anthony Quinn being cast as a Greek man in Zorba the Greek.
Opinion in the Asian community was mixed. To some Chinese, the casting was offensive because they mistook geisha for prostitutes, and because it revived memories of wartime Japanese atrocities. The Chinese government canceled the film's release there because of such connections, and a website denounced star Zhang Ziyi as an "embarrassment to China." This was exacerbated by the word "geigi" (芸妓), a Japanese name for geisha used in the Kantō region, which includes Tokyo. The second character (妓) could sometimes mean "prostitute" in Japanese language, though it actually had a variety of meanings, and there was a clear distinction between geisha and prostitutes which were called "Yūjo" (遊女). The character 妓 only means "prostitute" in Chinese, and the correct translation into Chinese of the word "geisha" is 艺伎 (traditional Chinese: 藝伎), which does not use it. Some Japanese have expressed offense that people of their own nationality had not gotten the roles. Other Asians defended the casting, including the film's main Japanese star Ken Watanabe who said that "talent is more important than nationality."
In defense of the film, Zhang spoke:
Film critic Roger Ebert pointed out that the film was made by a Japanese-owned company, and that Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi outgross any Japanese actress even in the Japanese box office.
The film received some hostile responses in Mainland China, including its banning by the People's Republic of China. Relations between Japan and Mainland China were particularly tense due to two main factors: Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a number of visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors all Japan's war dead, including some who were convicted war criminals, which was denounced by China's foreign ministry as honoring them; and China helped to ensure Japan did not receive a seat on the UN Security Council. Writer Hong Ying argued that "Art should be above national politics". Nevertheless, the release of Memoirs of a Geisha into this politically charged situation added to cultural conflict within and between China and Japan.
The film was originally scheduled to be shown in cinemas in the People's Republic of China on February 9, 2006. The Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television decided to ban the film on February 1, 2006, considering the film as "too sensitive". In doing so, it overturned a November decision to approve the film for screening.
The film is set in Japan during World War II, when the Second Sino-Japanese War was taking place. During this time, Japan captured and forced Chinese women to serve as "comfort women" for their military personnel. Controversy arose in China from an apparent confusion of equating geisha with prostitution, and thus the connection with, and reminder of, comfort women being used in Japan at that time.
Newspaper sources, such as the Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post and the Shanghai Youth Daily, quoted the fears that the film might be banned by censors; there were concerns that the casting of Chinese actresses as geishas could rouse anti-Japan sentiment and stir up feelings over Japanese wartime actions in China, especially the use of Chinese women as forced sex workers.
Academy AwardsWon: Best Art Direction (John Myhre and Gretchen Rau)
Won: Best Cinematography (Dion Beebe)
Won: Best Costume Design (Colleen Atwood)
Nominated: Best Original Score (John Williams)
Nominated: Best Sound Editing (Wylie Stateman)
Nominated: Best Sound Mixing (Kevin O'Connell, Greg P. Russell, Rick Kline and John Pritchett)
Golden GlobeWon: Best Original Score (John Williams)
Nominated: Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama (Zhang Ziyi)
National Board of ReviewWon: Best Supporting Actress (Gong Li)
Satellite AwardsWon: Outstanding Screenplay, Adapted (Robin Swicord)
Nominated: Outstanding Motion Picture, Drama
Nominated: Outstanding Director (Rob Marshall)
Nominated: Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama (Zhang Ziyi)
Nominated: Outstanding Actress in a Supporting Role, Drama (Gong Li)
Nominated: Outstanding Art Direction & Production Design (John Myhre)
Nominated: Outstanding Cinematography (Dion Beebe)
Nominated: Outstanding Costume Design (Colleen Atwood)
Nominated: Outstanding Original Score (John Williams)
BAFTA AwardsWon: The Anthony Asquith Award for Achievement in Film Music (John Williams)
Won: Cinematography (Dion Beebe)
Won: Costume Design (Colleen Atwood)
Nominated: Best Actress in a Leading Role (Zhang Ziyi)
Nominated: Production design
Nominated: Make Up and Hair
Screen Actors Guild AwardsNominated: Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role (Zhang Ziyi)
NAACP Image AwardsNominated: Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture (Zhang Ziyi)
The Memoirs of a Geisha official soundtrack featured Yo-Yo Ma performing the cello solos, as well as Itzhak Perlman performing the violin solos. The music was composed and conducted by John Williams, who won his fourth Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score.
- "Sayuri's Theme" – 1:31
- "The Journey to the Hanamachi" – 4:06
- "Going to School" – 2:42
- "Brush on Silk" – 2:31
- "Chiyo's Prayer" – 3:36
- "Becoming a Geisha" – 4:32
- "Finding Satsu" – 3:44
- "The Chairman's Waltz" – 2:39
- "The Rooftops of the Hanamachi" – 3:49
- "The Garden Meeting" – 2:44
- "Dr. Crab's Prize" – 2:18
- "Destiny's Path" – 3:20
- "A New Name... A New Life" – 3:33
- "The Fire Scene and the Coming of War" – 6:48
- "As the Water..." – 2:01
- "Confluence" – 3:42
- "A Dream Discarded" – 2:00
- "Sayuri's Theme and End Credits" – 5:06