Memoirs of a Geisha

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Memoirs of a Geisha is an 1997 novel by Arthur Golden -- later adapted into a 2005 film -- about the life of a famous Geisha, Sayuri (formerly Chiyo), who was sold to a geisha house by her father at a young age to be trained in the profession. One day, she meets a man who becomes her main motivation to pursue a career as a geisha, although she soon starts to realize that he is unobtainable. Meanwhile, Sayuri becomes a pawn in an intrigue between two of the most successful geisha in the district. The plot is set in Japan, mainly in the decades around the Second World War.

Arthur Golden caught a good deal of flak for naming his sources. As noted in the 'translator's note' prologue, geisha are expected to be discreet, regarding what they know and who they know it about, and about their own trade in general. One of Golden's primary sources, former Geisha Mineko Iwasaki, specifically asked to be kept anonymous, and Golden went and thanked her in the author's note anyway. She herself netted criticism (and even death threats) for opening up in such a way, and eventually ended up publishing her actual memoirs, Geisha of Gion. She also said that either Golden downright lied about the geishas and their lives (specifically, the whole "Sayuri gets her virginity auctioned" was supposedly based on Iwasaki's experience, but she claims it never happened to her), or showed experiences that were beneficial to Iwasaki and Co. in a negative light.


Tropes used in Memoirs of a Geisha include:
  • Alpha Bitch: Hatsumomo.
  • Anywhere but Their Lips: Most of the men that Sayuri had been with kissed her anywhere but her lips. It made her First Kiss with the Chairman so much more special.
  • Blue Eyes: Sayuri.
  • Boy Meets Girl: Gender-flipped. Girl meets boy. Girl trains to become geisha to meet him again. Girl meets boy again, but he doesn't seem to recognize her.
  • Break the Haughty: Hatsumomo, and how.
  • California Doubling: The movie was filmed mostly in California as present-day Kyoto was judged to be too modern-looking for the period. The Gion district seen in the film was an elaborate set built specifically for the movie.
  • Cinderella Circumstances
  • Costume Porn: Have you seen those kimono? But given the importance of kimono - well-made kimono and lots of them were expected of geisha - hardly unexpected as a trope here. In the movie, this is an Enforced Trope: the directors didn't want the costumes to be perfect replicas. Rather they wanted them to look good on screen; purposefully changing them slightly.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Chairman, the Baron, the General. The Chairman is an odd case, because Mameha does refer to him by his real name (Iwamura Ken) but Sayuri, who's in love with him, does not.
  • Evil Former Friend: Pumpkin becomes one of these after Mother adopted Sayuri instead of her and Sayuri became a much popular geisha than her.
  • Extreme Doormat: Sayuri at first.
  • First Kiss: This is the reason why the Chairman kissing Sayuri was so important to Sayuri. It was the first time any man had kissed her passionately on the lips.
  • Generation Xerox: The eventual fates of Sayuri and Pumpkin aren't that different from their mentors, Mameha and Hatsumomo.
  • Good All Along: Chiyo/Sayuri initially assumes Mameha is mentoring her for the chance to get back at Hatsumomo. While this is certainly a bonus, she finds out that it was actually as a favor to the Chairman.
  • Grey Blue Eyes: Sayuri, which makes her stand out.
  • Hello, Nurse!: Typical reaction to a beautiful geisha.
  • High-Class Call Girl: The story is about the girl Chiyo who trains to become the esteemed Geisha, Sayuri who is primarily an artist but is required to sell her virginity to become official.
  • Humiliation Conga: Hatsumomo starts to lose it when Sayuri becomes a more successful Geisha than she is. Noticing this, Mameha tries her damnest to make it worse for her. She eventually succeeds.
  • Instant Expert: Deconstructed in the book: What looked like instant expertise to others is really a combination of Chiyo being resourceful and incredibly determined.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Sayuri and Mameha, who would become a mentor and a sister for Sayuri as well.
  • Jerkass: Hatsumomo, who gets away with it because she's the okiya's breadwinner.
  • Keep It Foreign: The original novel uses LOTS of Japanese words without any translation, assuming the readers have some knowledge about Japanese culture.
  • Kimono Fanservice: All three kinds.
  • Lie Back and Think of England: Though it's made clear that geisha are not prostitutes, they do traditionally lose their virginity to the highest bidder. In Sayuri's case, her thoughts during the procedure run along the lines of her attempts to "put all the force of my mind to work in making a sort of mental barrier between [the man] and me…I searched the shadows on the ceiling for something to distract me."
  • Literary Agent Hypothesis: Sayuri's memoirs were, according to the "Translator's Note", recorded and translated by a Dutch immigrant and college professor, Jakob Haarhuis. Haarhuis plays no other role in the story, he's just there to establish the setting.
  • Manipulative Bitch: Hatsumomo. Mameha to a lesser extent, but she's less obvious about it.
  • May-December Romance
  • Meaningful Rename: Geisha have always employed artist names.
  • Memento MacGuffin: The handkerchief that the Chairman gave to Sayuri when they first met when she was twelve is kept by Sayuri as a good luck charm.
  • Mistress Husbandry: Arguably, the romance between Sayuri and the Chairman.
    • As Cracked.com summed up the movie, "Zhang Ziyi vows to learn the art of the geisha in order to win the affections of an older man who bought her a snow cone when she was 10."
    • There's no "arguably" about it - the Chairman more or less admits to this when he admits his feelings. Sayuri is completely accepting of it, of course.
  • Naive Newcomer: Sayuri at first.
  • No Hero to His Valet: Hatsumomo is a beautiful, popular and successful geisha, but she's needlessly cruel to Sayuri and treats her and the other maids like her personal slaves.
  • No Name Given: "Dr. Crab", Granny, and Auntie. We do know that Granny and Auntie's surname is Nitta, same as Sayuri's and Mother's.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Pumpkin, in a way. She plays the drunk bimbo when Sayuri asks her for help, but winds up completely screwing her over.
  • Onee-Sama: Mameha, with a bit more deviousness.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Pumpkin. Which probably sucks for her, because it's Sayuri who gave her that nickname in the first place. She adopts the geisha name "Hatsumiyo", but everybody, including her customers and other geisha, continue to refer to her as Pumpkin.
    • There's also Doctor Crab, who is never referred to as anything but Doctor Crab. Mameha describes it as "a little nickname he's picked up over the years." In the novel, it's No Name Given, since Sayuri simply refuses to say his name in the narration; in dialogue, he's referred to as 'the Doctor'. All she says is that if you saw him, the same nickname would come to you.
  • Parental Abandonment: Sayuri and her sister's mother was dying (and eventually died), while their father sold them to Mr Tanaka and then died not too long after their mother.
  • Posthumous Narration / Posthumous Character: Odd case: Sayuri dictated her memoirs before her death (obviously), but the prologue established that she didn't want them published until after she and several key players in her life were already deceased. It's pretty fair to say that all of the characters in the book had died by the time it was published.
    • In fact, it's noted in the 'Translator's Note' that Sayuri outlived all the others.
  • Pretty in Mink: Some fur trimmed outfits in the movie.
  • Rite of Passage: In the book, the rite of passage is to have the young geisha apprentice sell her Mizuage.
    • This is based on a real life growing up ritual.
  • The Rival: Hatsumomo and Mameha.
  • Scenery Porn: Kyoto, Japan. Cherry blossoms. 'Nuff said.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money: The Baron.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: The Chairman and Nobu.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: A geisha is never meant to fall in love with any man.
  • The Talk: Mameha illustrates the facts of life for Sayuri. It involves eels and caves. ("Every once in a while, a man's eel likes to visit a woman's cave.")
    • Best. Sex. Talk. Ever. The unusual way Mameha explains it is because it was explained the same way to her by her own mentor.
    • In the movie, this is parodied slightly when Mameha begins to explain and Sayuri stops her, saying "I know." When Mameha looks surprised, Sayuri explains, "I live with Hatsumomo!"
  • Talks Like a Simile: Arthur Golden's favorite creative writing teacher must have told him, "Never just describe it if you can compare it to something. Preferably something that occurs in nature but is slightly weird and counterintuitive and will require the reader to stop for a second in order to picture it properly."
  • Translation Convention: The filmmakers seem to have forgotten that they were using this; the characters are able to hold a conversation with American soldiers. It averts Just a Stupid Accent, however, since the actresses use their natural accents.
  • Triang Relations: Nobu is in love with Sayuri, who is in love with the Chairman, who is Nobu's business partner.
  • Two-Faced: Nobu.
  • Unknown Rival: Pumpkin, in the sense that Sayuri doesn't seem to understand why Pumpkin would see her as a rival.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Deliberately exacerbated by Mameha.
  • We Used to Be Friends: Sayuri and Pumpkin. However, once Hatsumomo took Pumpkin in and Sayuri was adopted by Mother when she became popular as a geisha, Pumpkin became jealous of Sayuri, even betraying her at one point.
  • What Beautiful Eyes!: One of the most striking features about Sayuri is her gray eyes.
  • World War II
  • Your Cheating Heart: The Chairman is already married when he meets Sayuri.
    • In Japanese culture at the time (and somewhat today) this wasn't remotely a big deal. Most of clientele were married with families. In the present day scenes, Sayuri actually keeps some facts quiet out of respect for the Chairman's family.