Sunday, January 22, 2006

Memoirs of a Geisha

I watched Memoirs of a Geisha this weekend and it was an odd experience to say the least. I mean, the story was good, but why were all those people speaking English when they are in Japan? And why are many of the actors Chinese when, again, this is supposed to be Japan? Japanese speakers have a different accent when they speak English than Chinese speakers of English. Everytime a Chinese actor spoke, I was like, they are *so* not Japanese! But more than anything was that here are all of these Japanese characters speaking English to each other with the occasionaly "Arigatou gozaimasu" thrown in for what? Cultural effect? Ooh, exotic when they choose to speak their own language at random moments, isn't it? I understand that this is a movie about Japan made for English speaking cultures, but really, it's just silly. Why can't English speaking audiences just stop being lazy and read some damned subtitles? Why can't Hollywood cast actors who are actually of the culture that is being portrayed? I complain because the story was basically a good one but it was just so odd to watch it now that I've lived in Japan for the past year and a half. It just doesn't match the reality. No film or book can, but I think that there is such a thing as falling short of even the basic illusion that a film or book can make of reality. I'll have to read the book, because the story was pretty good.


Blogger Jody (White) and Juan Leon said...

I can't believe you haven't read the book. That was sooooooo like 5 years ago. Actually, I haven't read it in a while... can I borrow it when you are through? ;)

8:33 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

I understand the book was originally written in English and the movie is made for an English language audience without the culture it's about really in mind at all. I'm mainly speaking to the strangeness it holds for me now that I've lived here. I mean, wouldn't you think it was odd if you watched a movie that was set in, oh let's just randomly say colonial America, but everyone was speaking Japanese? It's that sort of oddness. It just throws me off of actually being able to settle into the movie pleasurably. My favorite part was the beginning, which is all in Japanese without subtitles. At first I thought, how is anyone who doesn't undersdtand Japanese going to understand that this guy is totally selling his daughters! And then it hit me that the one time Japanese is spoken in the movie is to make English speakers feel the confusion of the sisters as they're taken away and don't understand what their father has done or why. I understood it so that effect was lost on me at first. And then there was all this English, and then Chinese people (which I'm sure won't be a problem for a lot of Westerners--we tend to not be able to tell the difference between some Asian races unless we spend some time with them) so for me, just being surrounded by Japan and Japanese and Japanese people all day everyday, it felt weird. I'm probably ruined for any Hollywood production set in Japan forever now. hehe. The only odd move about having the actors speak Japanese and using subtitles, to me, would be that the movie would lose significant viewers from even coming and giving it a try, people who just refuse to read subtitles. I think the main difference of why it was so difficult for me to get settled into it was just the difference between having lived here versus if I hadn't. I'm sure I wouldn't notice much of anything if I'd never come to Japan.

5:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Signoret and Montand made a movie in France and in French of Arthur Miller's The Crucible which play, of course, takes place in Puritan Massachusetts. The results are ludicrous in some respects - mighty fancy dress and flamboyant hand gesturing from a bunch of fundamentalist witch burners, and the wigs are to die! But it's redeemed by the humanity of Montand's performance.


1:28 PM  
Blogger Jason Erik Lundberg said...

I think it's not just a matter of the book having been written in English, but that it was written by a white American male. I've neither read the book nor seen the movie (so I don't know how much weight this comment may have), but there is the possiblility that the Hollywood producers who made the movie figured the typical American audience just wouldn't "get it" if it was spoken in Japanese by Japanese actors. It was written by a white guy in English, so only white people will be able to understand it in English, right?

As for the Chinese actors in the film, I think they were used because Ziyi Zhang (and to a lesser extent, Michelle Yeoh) is hot right now. Plus, like Chris said, most Westerners can't tell the difference between the Asian races (I still have trouble even though my wife is ethnically Chinese), and they probably figured it wouldn't make a difference.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Well after talking to a friend of mine who's read the book and seen the movie both, it seems like the movie fails to do some things that the book made sure to do that are the source of many of my complaints. The book has Sayuri in New York at a point, making a Western audience part of the context of her story, and their is a fictionalized "translator's notes" at the beginning of the book apparently, which makes the English that it is then told in make sense. And the girl's eye color is much made of in the book, whereas I think it's mentioned once in the movie, and believe me, if a Japanese girl had eyes as blue as that actress was wearing, they would get stopped everyday and asked where she got them, because that ain't normal here, especially back then before color contacts. Which leaves only the use of lots of Chinese actors, some of whom I know where simply chosen to open up the Chinese market for the movie and Hollywood will always take the money route instead of the correct one, so that's not surprising and livable. The movie just doesn't end up doing some of the "support" work to make sense of itself that the book did, according to this friend, which I suspected. I would have felt the English was justified more if it would have been framed as a translation of Sayuri's memoirs directed at a western audience in particular, rather than how it opens now.
I've become a nitpick about things like that in books and movies over the years. ;-) Now I definitely want to read the book though.

5:12 PM  

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