(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on September 16, 2010.)
Hollywood, it goes without saying, is a funny place. (It should also go without saying that I mean “funny” as in odd, ironic and sometimes perverse.)
It’s funny because Hollywood is where art and commerce meet, with commerce usually trumping the art. But every now and then a movie or TV show makes it through the incredible obstacle course that seems to be designed to remove anything real — creativity, passion, individuality and so on — and meets commercial success and critical acclaim.
When that happens, and a classic is born, it becomes a beacon that draws people to Southern California from around the world to become actors, writers, directors and the like in the hopes of beating the odds and turning their fleeting visions into lasting cultural touchstones.
Sadly, as far as Japanese Americans are concerned, those instances are rare. The same holds true for Japanese from Japan, too.
Take Columbia Pictures’ 2005 picture “Memoirs of a Geisha.” It had so much going for it — name recognition, because it was based on the bestselling novel of the same name, producer Steven Spielberg (who actually wanted to originally direct it) and a big name director in Rob Marshall, coming off the success of “Chicago.”
As for the movie itself, “Geisha” was a mixed bag — beautiful sets, costumes, cinematography and music, and an epic, decades-spanning storyline that by its end failed to deliver an emotional knockout punch. As a result, it was not the success it could have been, both in terms of worldwide box-office (nearly $105 million) or Academy Awards.
The casting was, to revisit that word again, “funny,” since none of the three actresses who portrayed “Geisha’s” three principal characters as adults were of Japanese ancestry.
Actually, the three actresses — Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh all of whom were either Chinese or of Chinese ancestry (Yeoh is a Malaysian of Chinese descent) — acquitted themselves well, despite misgivings of miscasting. While they weren’t Japanese, they did have name recognition, which helped them get the roles.
While I didn’t have a problem with Sony-owned Columbia casting Chinese as Japanese (progress, actually, since such a movie made a few decades earlier might have used White actresses in “Yellowface”), what I found off-putting and disingenuous was the assertion by the movie’s producers that they could not find Japanese actresses (or even American actresses of Japanese descent) to fulfill the roles, despite supposedly holding auditions around the world.
They simply needed a star, and since there are no Japanese actresses with the name recognition of a Japanese actor like Ken Watanabe, and they were unwilling to go with a talented but unknown Japanese or Japanese American actress that they would make into a star, we got what got in “Geisha.”
But, sometimes good can come from these sorts of circumstances. A great example is “Hannari — Geisha Modern.” Released theatrically here in 2006, I finally got a chance to see it on DVD. It many ways, because it is a documentary, it’s a satisfying counterpoint to the overly slick and fanciful elements that marred “Memoirs of a Geisha.”
Directed by Miyuki Sohara, who also co-produced it with her husband, Kentaro Kajino, who also wrote it, the independently produced “Hannari” is a counterpoint in other ways, too, because its creation was indirectly spurred on by “Memoirs.” (Sohara also teaches a ballet that my daughter attends, which is how I met the couple.)
I spoke at length with Kajino (a real life rocket scientist) about the genesis of the movie and it turns out that his wife, like many other Japanese and Japanese American actresses, was interested in being in the movie version of “Memoirs of a Geisha.”
According to Kajino, his wife, who trained in ballet, wanted to prepare for a part in the movie on her own by researching the world of the geisha, trying to learn traditional dances that geisha perform, interviewing proprietors of the Kyoto okiya, as well as actual maiko and geiko.
Sohara eventually left behind the idea of being in “Memoirs of a Geisha,” and instead decided to use the contacts she developed to tell not only the real story and origins of the world of Kyoto’s geisha but to also tell the story of the state of geisha in the modern world.
Kajino told me that their impetus to make the movie was because there was a need to show who and what geisha really are, and what the status of this Japanese cultural tradition is today.
The result was “Hannari — Geisha Modern,” a beautifully produced, 94-minute long look into that world, all the more significant because although Sohara had produced some TV in Japan, “Hannari” is her first feature. Not only that, adding to the difficulty of making this movie was that along the way, the couple had two children! (Their names are Takamaro and Reyna.)
Some of the facts that “Hannari” relays is that today, there are only about 300 active, “real” geiko in Japan. Another is that many young Japanese girls who choose to train as geiko no longer come only from the Kyoto area; rather, they learn about it through websites on the Internet and come from all over Japan now.
All the traditional arts and crafts that form the support system of geisha, like hair and makeup, clothing, dance and music lessons and the like also get explored in “Hannari.” Sadly, some of those arts and artisans face the problem of not having younger practitioners and apprentices to carry on those traditions.
Things have changed in other ways, too. No longer are there the many wealthy patrons who used support the art form. Nowadays there are fan clubs whose members support individual geiko.
All in all, “Hannari” is a superior, informative and somewhat meditative look at a Japanese subculture that holds the fascination not just of those outside Japan but within Japan as well. It contains other surprising elements as well, like one geiko who also pursues jazz singing.
Ironically, Kajino admitted that had his wife never left Japan to pursue acting in Hollywood, she might not have ever thought to explore this world, taking it for granted. Only by leaving Japan and becoming dissatisfied by how Hollywood sought to misportray an aspect of Japanese culture was she inspired to create a thing of beauty: “Hannari — Geisha Modern.” It’s a real instance of an irritant producing a pearl.
According to Kajino, the DVD is only available in a few local Japanese bookshops like Asahiya for $29.95, so the best bet to purchase a copy is via their website, hannari.info. Not only that, this documentary is exclusive to the United States, although he said they plan to make it available in Japan on DVD next year.
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Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
(George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Past columns can be viewed at www.IntoTheNextStage.com. Copyright © 2010 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)