Dir: Ken Nishikawa
(subtitled: Japanese, English)
Memoirs of a Geisha
Forget the 2005 Japanesque Hollywood epic that’s inevitably donated its name for the subheading above… This film, literally, is the memoirs of a geisha. A true geisha. Told by one of the last surviving doyennes of that most veiled of professions. And behind that veil, at a spritely eighty years old, Matsuchiyo makes for intriguing company.
She relates a story of stoic devotion, hardship and heartbreak, one that would exert great strain on the raising of her young family. Not least on her eldest son, a child sometimes shouldering the burden of responsibility as the senior male of the close-knit unit. Director-narrator Nishikawa could not be better placed to tell her story, because he is that son.
Matsuchiyo – Life of a Geisha explores possibly the greatest enigma of the Far East. Alongside “samurai” and “sushi”, words like “geisha” export an idea of traditional Japanese heritage to the wider world. Yet the term is so little understood in the West. And as the occupation gradually dies out, its secrets may be left to scatter in the wind.
Through direct interviews, Matsuchiyo recalls narrow escape from Soviet forces during the war, herself and her mother the family’s sole survivors. Joining an agency in order to support them, she matured into one of the most renowned geisha in Atami, an idyllic coastal resort buoyed by the post-war economic boom. We learn of her relationships, both professional and otherwise, and how the line between the two gets blurred. Often with deeply painful results. Now, entering her ninth decade, she reflects with wisdom, fortitude, appreciation, and not a little amusement. Her reminiscences are accompanied by elegant, nostalgic photography, and a strangely compelling, almost eerie soundtrack. Nishikawa’s precise English narration mixes with the flow of his mother’s subtitled speech, his admiration and respect for his parent clear, without ever overwhelming.
It’s a tale that deserves to be elicited and told, for the way of the geisha would never be boastful. Geisha have always maintained an essence of privacy and mystery. Discretion is, naturally, at the heart of the role. The film engages the viewer by uncovering the impact this has had on one of its most devoted practitioners, and also on the film-maker himself. But it also manages to retain that sense of demure subtlety. The result is an affecting revelation of a beguiling, and now declining, artistry. As a documentary, it has a lingering, haunting poignancy. It’s also a touching tribute from a loving son, a disclosure from a bygone age, which may yet prove to become a valuable historical document.
★ ★ ★