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star struck

In search of geisha
With three Chinese leads, Memoirs of a Geisha is bound to create a stir
By Chris Betros

From left, director Rob Marshall, Gong Li, Kaori Momoi, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Watanabe, Koji Yakusho and Yuki Kudoh
Photos by Chris Betros

Ever since Memoirs of a Geisha finished filming in Japan in late January, the media focus has been on why producer Steven Spielberg and director Rob Marshall (of Chicago fame) cast three Chinese actresses—Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh—in the lead roles of three geisha. In a video message to Japanese media, Spielberg avoided the topic, but said he thought Arthur Golden’s book was one of the most culturally appealing stories he had ever read and expressed confidence it would appeal to audiences in any country. Besides the three leads, the Japanese cast includes Ken Watanabe, Koji Yakusho, Kaori Momoi and Yuki Kudoh.

Set in 1920s Japan, Memoirs tells the story of Nitta Sayuri, who is taken from her home at the age of 9 to undergo training to become a geisha. She learns dance, music, the art of wearing kimono, how to elaborately do makeup and hair, eventually attracting the amorous attentions of two suitors (Watanabe and Yakusho).

Marshall said it was an exquisite journey making Memoirs, which will be released in Japan in December with the title Sayuri. “We had to film most of it in LA because we couldn’t find any places here that still looked like 1920s and 1930s Japan. We ended up building a little Japan in Ventura, Calif. For the final scenes, we filmed in Kyoto temples that had never allowed filming before.”

Yeoh and Gong were initially intimidated when Marshall asked them to play geisha, as was Ziyi who plays Sayuri. “It was like a fantasy world to me,” said Hong Kong star Yeoh, adding that she felt audiences would pay no attention to the stars’ nationalities.

Watanabe and Momoi were both cautious. “I talked with Rob about whether this would be a culturally accurate film or a concept film,” Watanabe said. “Since it is a fantasy world, the details were not as important as they would have been in something like The Last Samurai.”

Momoi was shocked when she learned the leads wouldn’t be Japanese. She also felt the film would have been better in Japanese. “Then I realized the book is told through the eyes of an American and for the film, further filtered through an American director’s lens,” she said. “There were some incorrect details, such as the makeup being not thick enough on the geisha, but I think it will appeal to younger audiences.”

“It is beautiful and mysterious,” Marshall said of the geisha world. “A lot of people still don’t know what geisha really are. Golden wanted to lift that veil in his book, and in our movie we honor a world that has beauty, joy and heartbreak.”




 

 

the scene

Miss Universe Japan Final
2005 winner is crowned at Tokyo International Forum

Clockwise from top left: the 15 finalists appear on the stage; hosts Junichiro Ishida and Lilico; 21-year-old Aichi model Yukari Kuzuya is crowned Miss Universe Japan; British group Diva performs

 

 

Q&A

Garth Roberts
Photographer turned pub landlord

Expats and Japanese in Meguro looking for a taste of England can always be found at the Meguro Tavern, established seven years ago by former professional photographer Garth Roberts, 48. With seating for 100 people, a food menu of British and European dishes, six draft beers and over 100 cocktails—along with a large selection of Scotch, Irish and other premium whiskies—the Meguro Tavern is a fun watering hole.

What first brought you to Japan?
I came in the late 1970s as a photographer. I ended up co-producing a large language school that was a residential program in Meguro.

Why did you open this pub?
There were no pubs like this around in the early days. While I was doing the residential program, I really needed this kind of establishment for my teachers and students.

Who are your clientele?
Now, 60 percent Japanese, 40 percent foreign.

What’s the best thing about the Meguro Tavern?
The furnishings, food and quality. We employ serious bartenders who know how to do their thing. And our fish and chips are the best in Tokyo.

How do you market the pub?
Advertising and flyers. I have been out sometimes in a British bobby’s uniform handing out flyers at Meguro Station before the Japanese police moved me along. That must have been a sight. Not as much as when I rented a Grenadier’s uniform like the red guards at Buckingham Palace.

What’s your daily schedule like?
I get up about 10am. At noon I’m on the computer doing e-mails, marketing, designing menus, editing photos until about 3 or 4pm. Then I come here.

What do you drink at night?
Gin and tonics or Guinness. I’m always sober when I go home around 3am. What’s the craziest thing you’ve done in Japan? Probably skiing down a slope while wearing a Frankenstein mask.

Would you like to comment on this article? Send a letter to the editor at letters@metropolis.co.jp.

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