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Movie Review: Hannari – Geisha Modern Is More Travel Guide Than Documentary

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Hannari: Geisha Modern is a documentary that I truly wanted to like. After all, it was both the production of the 2005 Memoirs of a Geisha and the 2002 The Last Samurai that inspired first-time documentary filmmaker Miyuki Sohara to make this film.

Sohara, who had a small part in the Tom Cruise flick as a geisha, was, according to the production notes for this documentary, "disappointed to learn that the producers of Memoirs of a Geisha had no interest in faithfully reproducing the artistic elements of the geisha culture, such as their dance."

Like her, I was disappointed with the Cruise flick, which I saw, and the snippets of Memoirs of a Geisha, which I have not seen. I had read the book and that was quite enough. The trailers for Memoirs of a Geisha inspired me to write an open letter to Steven Spielberg.

For those who don't know, originally the studio people responsible for the opening party of The Last Samurai sent an infamous email to a local college asking for young, attractive Asian women to dress up and be party favors or eye candy. No pay involved as well as no Asian men required. That email made the rounds nationwide and the studio quickly backtracked.

Later, when Memoirs of a Geisha came out as a movie, the book and the movie seemed to indicate how little Asian and Asian women had really progressed, even after the successful Joy Luck Club – both 1989 book and 1993 movie. Arthur Golden's novel followed a woman and her experiences prior to World War II, an explosive period in both Japanese history and the history of the United States in terms of societal change and racism and sexism. Golden, like Sohara, focuses on Kyoto geisha, but Sohara's documentary concentrates on modern geisha, as the title implies.

Beginning in 2005, Sohara, a TV announcer and radio DJ and sometime actor, spent three months interviewing and filming geisha in the Gion district. This was, notably, after Mineko Iwasaki had filed a lawsuit against Arthur Golden regarding his 1997 novel Memoirs of a Geisha in 2001. Iwasaki, who does not read English, did read the Japanese edition.

Sohara doesn't answer any questions that The Last Samurai and both the book and the film of Memoirs of a Geisha broached. Instead, Hannari: Geisha Modern occupies a curious space beyond and apart from recent history, insulating itself from both Sohara's original catalyst and the world at large, both Japan insiders and the people who are willing to believe in the geisha fantasy.

Some of the cinematography shows her inexperience. The lighting is wrong and the colors are off — typical of photography or filming inside where the lighting is too yellow and which goes uncorrected by film or filters.

Sohara had access to the geisha community that hasn't been granted before, but the vital missing ingredient is the critical eye and view. We are told why a dance instructor believes that many women do not make it to the apprentice maiko stage but we don't hear from those who quit.

We learn that where geiko (as geisha prefer to be called) used to number in the thousands and now only 300 currently work in Kyoto. Originally, most of the geiko came from the Kyoto area, but now many come from outside and other areas of Japan. We don't hear why Kyoto women reject that lifestyle, we only hear why women have decided to train. We don't hear how the families of these women consider this choice. What do their parents think? What do their siblings, particularly other sisters, think?

Moreover, we never hear from Mineko Iwasaki, the woman who sued Arthur Golden and his publisher and went on to write her own book, Geisha: A Life, in 2002. We also do not hear what those interviewed think about Golden, Iwasaki or either book. Iwasaki reportedly quit early in her career because of her frustration with the traditional system.

If Hollywood's damningly mistaken portrayal of the geiko was the impetus for this documentary, then it is equally odd that we never hear what anyone thinks about big budget Hollywood portrayals, even though two of the women interviewed were in the 1957 movie Sayonara. All we have are these two women recalling they sat near a young and virile Marlon Brando and wondering if Miyoshi Umeki won an Oscar for her role as the ill-fated wife of an American airman played by Red Buttons.

For the record, that movie won Buttons and Umeki supporting actor Oscars. Brando was nominated for Best Actor despite his odd Southern accent. Also notable is Ricardo Montalban playing a Japanese named Nakamura. What did the Japanese think of that?

Brando had played a Japanese Okinawan in the 1956 movie The Teahouse of the August Moon. Surely if everyone is a critic a few critics of that performance could be found in Japan.

These connections aren't followed up by Sohara, making the resulting conversations trite. Big names are dropped but related hard issues are not picked up. One of the more famous geiko of yesteryear is also brought up, Yuki Kato Morgan (1881-1963), but the social issues surrounding her are not.

Supposedly, both the Morgan family and the Kato family disapproved of the match between the young geiko and George Morgan, nephew of J.P. Morgan. Yuki and George Morgan were not welcomed in the United States despite the Morgan family money. They settled in France. Morgan died 10 years later in 1914. Yuki returned to Japan in 1938.

According to a December 1947 article from the Time magazine archives, while most English news sources called her a famous geiko, in a fictionalized account of her life and romance run in 260 installments in three Japanese newspapers, she was depicted as a second-class geiko who accepted Morgan's proposal only after her Japanese lover married someone else. Morgan bought her from the teahouse for what amounted to $20,000 at that time.

Yuki refused to see the book's author and did not read the accounts. Surely, since Sohara had access to the Kato family, there was some issues — social prejudice in Japan and the U.S. and sensationalization of geiko on both sides — that could have been explored but were not.

Because of this non-critical, feel-good, supportive stance of the movie, it feels more like a travel guide than a documentary. As the former, Sohara succeeds. As the latter, one can only sigh and consider so many missed opportunities.

In Japanese with English narration and subtitles.

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