Ken Watanabe and Ziyi Zhang in Memoirs of a Geisha/Image © Columbia Pictures
In this literary tour de force, novelist Arthur Golden enters a remote and shimmeringly exotic world. The protagonist of this peerlessly observant first novel is Sayuri, one of Japan’s most celebrated geisha, a woman who is both performer and courtesan, slave and goddess.
We follow Sayuri from her childhood in an impoverished fishing village, where in 1929, she is sold to a representative of a geisha house, who is drawn by the child’s unusual blue-gray eyes. From there she is taken to Gion, the pleasure district of Kyoto. She is nine years old. In the years that follow, as she works to pay back the price of her purchase, Sayuri is schooled in music and dance, learns to apply the geisha’s elaborate makeup, wears a lavish kimono, and cares for a coiffure so fragile that it requires a special pillow. She also acquires a magnanimous tutor and a venomous rival. Surviving the intrigues of her trade and the upheavals of war, the resourceful Sayuri is a romantic heroine on the order of Jane Eyre and Scarlett O’Hara. And Memoirs of a Geisha is a triumphant work — suspenseful and utterly persuasive.
In 2005, the book was adapted for film, directed by Rob Marshall and starring Ziyi Zhang (“House of Flying Daggers”), Ken Watanabe (“The Last Samurai”), Michelle Yeoh (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), Kôji Yakusho (“Shall We Dance?”), Youki Kudoh (“The Wind Carpet”), Kaori Momoi (“Solntse”), and Gong Li (“Raise the Red Lantern”). The film’s multiple Oscars — art direction, cinematography, and costume design — are a testament to its stunning visuals.