Book/Movie About Geisha Helps Understand Japan

Destination: Japan

Book: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

I have never been to Japan. The country has always mystified me. The elaborate rituals, the complex rules for gardens and for tea ceremonies. And mostly the tradition of Geishas. “What’s with that?” this feminist wondered, as I observed movie depictions of Geishas mincing around and bowing and serving.

Because Geishas are exotic creatures to Western eyes, we tend to see more of them than of other parts of Japanese society, historic or present. By that I mean they appear in books, musicals, movies and advertisements probably more than their numbers justify. Just as gunslingers and dancehall girls represent the early 19th century western United States to large parts of the world, although plain old farm families, hardworking ranchers and miners existed in larger numbers.

At any rate, I absolutely loved the book[amazonify]1400096898::text:::: Memoirs of a Geisha[/amazonify], for giving me the kind of meaningful detail of Japanese  culture that had been glossed over by other depictions. Besides, it tells a compelling story and makes you care deeply about the characters. The book is written with such detail that I felt I had already seen all the scenes, but the movie added a few more details of Japanese architecture and fashion that I could not create in my mind.

Combined, the novel and the movie might¬† make me want to travel to Japan—but not to become a Geisha. Did you see the movie and read the book? Which did you prefer? Would you like to be a Geisha?

For more about Japan, see this about children’s books or this about unusual experiences in Tokyo.

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler’s Library, recreating her family’s past at Ancestors In Aprons. She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

Vera Marie Badertscher – who has written posts on A Traveler's Library.


About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons. She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

9 thoughts on “Book/Movie About Geisha Helps Understand Japan

  1. I also read the book years ago and enjoyed it much more than the movie. I thought the book was interesting in terms of explaining the day to day of geisha affairs and their hardships, socialization and competition with other women, as well as the business aspect of it. I think being a geisha offered a sort of “alternative” life for Japanese women who may not have necessarily wanted to be mothers or housewives, although they didn’t all choose that life, but were rather chosen for their beauty or skills.

    I live in Japan now and there seems to be elements of geisha culture around still. Not in the same way, but the escort bars, the emphasis on gentility and manners, etc… one of my japanese friends told me about all these “techniques” and mannerisms, which are considered more elegant and attractive to men. It sort of blew me away that women here are somewhat prescribed and methodical in those areas…
    .-= Mary R´s last blog ..Club Med Spoiler Alert: Swarming monkeys and Men Wearing Lipstick =-.

    1. Martha: Glad you liked it. I had the same reaction about sense of place.
      Alexandra: I think you’re right, the book had more clout. I liked the movie, but loved the book. And learning about how geishas work and that hidden culture fascinated me, too.

  2. I know there are folks who did not like this book but I found it fascinating. I also saw the movie, which did not have the same depth or emotion, although the architectural detail did help a lot since I have never been to Japan. It was especially interesting to read about hierarchy, among geishas, and their education.

  3. You might take a look at “Hokkaido Highway Blues,” aka “Hitching Rides with Buddha.” Will Ferguson is a Canadian expat teaching English in Japan, who decided to hitchhike his way through the country, following the cherry blossom festivals. His descriptions of people and places really made the country come alive for me – I enjoyed it very much!

    1. I love how much I learn from readers. Colleen, you always have good suggestions. Hokkaido is on my list, and I didn’t know about the Japanese Gardens in Saratoga. What a good tie-in to my post, had I ever visited there. Also had not heard about Japanland on PBS. Jessie: I agree it is a tiny slice, but as I said, we are overexposed to Geishas just as Europeans are overexposed to the Old West as representative of our respective countries. Nevertheless, I loved the book for the story and characters–not just location, and am sorry you didn’t like it. Edie–I don’t like sushi and teriakyi. Funny story–when I visited Taiwan as a guest of the gov’t, they took our group to a Japanese restaurant as a special treat. We, of course, wanted to spend our limited time eating the wonderful Taiwan food. And I think its only the Chinese who bound the feet. Am I wrong?

  4. I haven’t read the book or seen the movie! But I did recently visit Hakone Japanese Gardens in Saratoga, CA where parts of the movie were filmed. :) Japan and its culture has fascinated me for several years … I’ve been watching “Japanland” on PBS and enjoyed watching Karin Muller’s experiences as a single woman traveling solo through the country. http://www.japanlandjourney.com She also has a book, “Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa.”

  5. i lived in japan for a while, when i was in my 20s. however, i didn’t really like this book. it was a good snapshot of a very tiny slice of japanese culture, though. i tried to watch the movie and could NOT get into it…

    there are so many other great books – and movies – that portray a bit more of japanese culture than this.
    .-= jessiev´s last blog ..Hidden Treasures: Sunlight and Tea in Turkey =-.

  6. I loved the book, with all its dishy intrigue, but didn’t see the movie; I seem to recall it didn’t get good reviews though now that you’ve mentioned it, I think the details of architecture and fashion would be enough for me. I’ll check it out.

    Although I adore Japanese food, I never felt a strong desire to go to Japan. I think it’s because I know I would look large and ungainly next to all those graceful women, geishas or no.

    My feet hurt even thinking about that other aspect of geisha-dom, foot binding!
    .-= Edie Jarolim´s last blog ..Frankie Doodle: International Dog of Mystery =-.

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