Memoirs of a Geisha – Synopsis and Review
- Pages: 7
- Word count: 1700
- Category: Japanese
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In this piece of literature, 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. In 1929, at the age of nine, Chiyo Sakamoto is sold by her father along with her older sister Satsu to an OKIYA (geisha boarding house) in Gion. The representative of the geisha house is drawn by the child’s unusual blue-grey eyes. From there she is taken to Gion, the pleasure district of Kyoto. Chiyo begins to live in the okiya alongside another young girl named Pumpkin, elderly and grumbling Granny, money-obsessed Mother, and Auntie, a failed geisha. Also living in the okiya is the famous ill-mannered geisha, Hatsumomo, who promptly takes to disliking Chiyo, who she sees as a possible rival. The feelings of sorrow due to the loss of her mother and betrayal of her father build as she tries to keep up with the life in the okiya.
Homesickness and loneliness creeps over her as she remembers her sister(who is sold into prostitution) and her old life. Despite Pumpkin and Auntie’s warnings, Chiyo plans to leave the okiya and escape the city with Satsu, but is caught when she falls off the roof and breaks her arm. Enraged at her for dishonoring the okiya, Mother stops investing in Chiyo and makes her pay off her increasing debts as a slave. Several years later, a destitute and downtrodden Chiyo is given money and a handkerchief in the street by a strange but kind man known as the Chairman. Chiyo is taken by the kindness shown to her by the chairman who lifted her in her moment of sorrow, something that no one did for her, at a time when she was nothing.
She donates the money to the Yasaka Shrine in Gion, praying desperately to become a geisha in the hopes of seeing him again, keeping the handkerchief as a memento. Chiyo becomes envious of Pumpkin, who is on her way to becoming a geisha under Hatsumomo’s tutelage, while she remains a maid. Soon after visiting the shrine and during Granny’s funeral, she is unexpectedly taken in as a protégé by Mameha, a rival of Hatsumomo and the owner of a kimono Hatsumomo previously made Chiyo ruin. Mameha persuades Mother to reinvest into Chiyo’s training who thankfully begins her Geisha lessons again.
Chiyo begins to learn the shamisen and dance, learns to apply the geisha’s elaborate makeup, wear the elaborate but elegant kimono, and care for a coiffure so fragile that it requires a special pillow. Chiyo finally turns into a MAIKO (apprentice geisha) and adopts the name of Sayuri for her geisha name, with Mameha acting as her “older sister” and mentor. She is continually harassed by Hatsumomo who thinks of devious ways to distress Sayuri. Mameha explains that despite Hatsumomo’s popularity, she was in fact a failure due to once angering the mistress of her principal tea house.
As a result, she could never obtain a Danna to sponsor her independence, which is why she has stayed in the okiya under Mother. It was also revealed that despite making a lot of money, Mother had refused to name Hatsumomo as the heir of the okiya because she’s aware of the trouble she will bring: She will throw Mother out, sell off the okiya’s kimonos, retire and live on the money. Soon Sayuri meets the Chairman and his friend Nobu. The Chairman reveals that Nobu saved his life during a war and that he owes everything to his friend. Nobu, who dislikes geisha, develops a liking for Sayuri, but Sayuri who is deeply infatuated with the Chairman realizes that this can be detrimental to the future that she desires with the Chairman so she tries to politely resist Nobu.
Meanwhile Hatsumomo goes out of her way to ruin Sayuri by tarnishing her reputation in Gion, forcing Mameha and Sayuri to devise a plan to push Hatsumomo out of the okiya lest Sayuri’s career ultimately die, and so arranges for her mizuage (portrayed as a deflowering “ceremony” for maiko as a step to becoming full-fledged geisha) to be bidden upon by several influential men, namely mentor Nobu Toshikazu, the president of Iwamura Electric; and reputed mizuage specialist “Dr. Crab”, dubbed so by Sayuri due to his appearance. Unfortunately, Hatsumomo learns of the plan and tells Dr. Crab that Sayuri has already been deflowered.
However, after gaining back the respect of Dr. Crab by convincing him that Hatsumomo is a known liar, he ultimately wins the bid for Sayuri’s mizuage and she uses his payment to cover all of her fees. This leads Mother, who had already been considering adopting Pumpkin as her heiress, to adopt Sayuri instead, which ultimately destroys the two girls’ friendship. This change enrages both Pumpkin and Hatsumomo for different reasons: Pumpkin was looking forward to the adoption so that she could have some kind of security in her old age, while Hatsumomo was looking forward to Pumpkin’s adoption so she could secure her own position as head geisha.
Hatsumomo’s behavior begins to worsen and she is eventually thrown out of the okiya, with Pumpkin leaving soon after. As it turns out, Dr. Crab was actually bidding against the Baron, Mameha’s danna, for Sayuri’s mizuage. The Baron had previously undressed Sayuri against her will at a party, which Mameha had warned against. Nobu instead bids to become Sayuri’s danna, but loses out to General Tottori. At this time, Japan is on the brink of entering World War II and many Geisha are evacuated to other cities to work in factories, which require hard labor and are primary bomb targets.
The General is demoted and is unable to use any influence to send Sayuri somewhere safer but Nobu, despite losing respect for Sayuri, is able to send her far north to live with Arashino, a kimono maker. At the end of the war, Nobu visits Sayuri and asks that she return to Gion to help entertain the new Deputy Minister Sato, whose aid can be instrumental in rebuilding Iwamura Electric, the company which the Chairman and Nobu run. Sayuri, Mameha and Pumpkin entertain the Minister together regularly and within time, Nobu formally begins proposals to become Sayuri’s danna. Sayuri still maintains strong feelings for the Chairman and doesn’t want Nobu to become her danna, so on a weekend trip to the Amami Islands with Iwamura Electric, she plans to seduce the Minister and be caught in humiliation by Nobu.
She asks Pumpkin to bring Nobu to a theater while she is with the Minister. Pumpkin still harbors resentment towards Sayuri for being adopted by Mother and noticing her feelings towards the Chairman, purposely brings him to the theater instead. The Chairman is angered by this and Sayuri who wanted the Chairman to be her Danna, loses hope as she feels she has lost her love. She is finally broken by this and resigns to her future with Nobu. Sayuri eventually meets the Chairman again.
He reveals to Sayuri that he had always had feelings towards her, despite her thinking he didn’t, but explains that he felt it disrespectful to take away the woman his friend had showed so much interest in, especially considering Nobu had once saved the Chairman’s company. He also reveals that he found out the truth after confronting Pumpkin and told Nobu afterwards, causing Nobu to cease contact with Sayuri. She reveals that her acts in Amami were for personal reasons and that she loves him deeply. At this the Chairman pulls her close and kisses her with such abounding passion that she feels THIS is her first kiss expressing true love.
Sayuri eventually retires from being a geisha and the Chairman becomes her danna. It is revealed that they have an illegitimate son together. Foreseeing the consequences this could have regarding the inheritance of Iwamura Electric, she relocates to New York City in later life. Here she opens her own small tea house for entertaining Japanese men on business in the United States, which Mother takes a financial interest in, but Sayuri severs her links to the Nitta okiya and Japan. The Chairman remains her danna until his death and the story concludes with a reflection on her life.
Arthur Golden has indeed created a masterpiece which illustriously reveals the struggles of women sold into prostitution though their lives almost never have a happy ending. He has beautifully and artistically expressed the emotions of a girl sold by her family, who loses hope but gains it again and finally takes her life into her own hands to create a future for herself, . She batters the wall of obstacles and finally breaks shackles of those holding her down and finally gains victory. It shows women not only delicate and submissive but as an empowered being who can break free of yoke of exploitation and prostitution, as ones who can survive and create their own course.
This book stands the test of time as even today millions of children and women are sold into prostitution and are stripped of their dignity and made face the harsh world who exploits them. It is a call to those women to take their future into their hands and free themselves from the torture they are forced to endure. The author portrays Sayuri as a warrior who survives 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. Part historical novel, part fairy tale and part Dickensian romance, ”Memoirs of a Geisha” immerses the reader in an exotic world, even as it relates the story of one woman’s coming of age. It is a triumphant work – suspenseful, and utterly persuasive. It also has a movie counterpart which was filmed in 2005. Though many important components of the storyline are missing, the movie won several awards and nominations.