Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) is primarily a movie about a girl. The film can still be subjected to feminist critique because the patriarchy functions on two axes: the sexist man-woman and the ageist adult-child.
While Chiyo was not sold for a bride price and younger than she might have anticipated— only nine—she nonetheless leaves her father’s house in the manner of any female, Japanese or otherwise, as part of a financial transaction. As Gayle Rubin tells us,
“If it is women who are being transacted, then it is the men who give and take them… the woman being a conduit of relationship rather than a partner to it… it is men who are the beneficiaries of the product of such exchanges” (The Traffic in Women).
The heavy rain shower when Chiyo and her sister Satsu are sold and leave home may represent water breaking as she is ejected from the womb of the patriarchal household. Or, it could symbolize a kind of Zen Buddhist ritual purification, as when a renunciate bhikkhuni washes to signify disavowal of family. Chiyo has “deFOOed” as Stefan Molyneux might put it. She should be utterly free. But then, why all the prison bars imagery as Chiyo alights from the petty-cab in front of the okiya? Because the patriarchal family and the capitalist economy form one integrated system. Liberated from the father, she now reckons with the Man.
Despite what conservatives fear, prostitution (hanamachi) does not challenge the integrity of the family—it supports the family wherever the family structure fails, by providing security and support to females left out in the cold and intimacy and sex to men of frigid families.
“There are 80,000 prostitutes in London alone and what are they, if not bloody sacrifices on the altar of monogamy?” (Schopenhauer, On Women)
Heavy rain falls again while Chiyo searches for Satsu. Chiyo’s running through the drenched streets will shortly precipitate the permanent loss of her sister. At this point Mother gives Chiyo a package which turns out to contain a letter informing her that her mother and her father have died. Now utterly without family ties, Chiyo might have moved seamlessly from the microcosmic familial unit onto the macrocosmic space of the patriarchal capitalist order. Instead, however, Mother has had enough of Chiyo’s trouble-making and rather than training her as a geisha, she reduces the girl to slavery to recover financial losses.
Ironically, only as a slave is Chiyo free, both from the family unit and from personal investment in the statist market economy. She is liberated totally; and so, in the next scene Chiyo sits symbolically on a bridge, as if between these two worlds.
But who could betray the patriarchy? Within seconds she is approached across the river by a charming older gentleman, and instantly she is emotionally enmeshed in capitalism and the patriarchy through its most sacred and unquestioned institution—the romantic couple.
Like any man seducing a little girl, the Chairman first grooms her by buying her ice cream and then slips her some money. “In that moment I changed from a girl, facing nothing but emptiness, into someone with purpose.” From Zen-like emptiness and with “nothing to attain” (Heart Sutra), Chiyo is once again made a tool of a man’s world; specifically, she says she desires “a place in his world.”
Six years pass. Chiyo still pines for and desires the Chairman as strongly at fifteen as she had at nine, but unexpectedly, fortune and the politics of the Pleasure District supply her another chance to train as a maiko—and perhaps an opportunity to become intimate with the Chairman.
Chiyo must study hard. Her peer, Pumpkin, and the other aspiring geishas are years ahead of her in the art of sexual seduction, grace and conversation. “You will not be a true geisha until you can stop a man in his tracks with a single look,” chides Chiyo’s new mother, Mameha. Chiyo is a natural and is soon declared ready.
“’Today you leave your childhood and cast away your name, from this day forward you will be known as Sayuri.’ I felt little Chiyo disappear behind a white mask with red lips. I was a maiko now, an apprentice geisha. From that moment I told myself when I make tea, when I pour sake, when I dance, when I tie my kimono… it will be for the chairman, until he finds me… until I am his.”
Geisha, meaning “artist,” are different from the prostitutes called yujo or tayuu from whom they evolved. Geisha, while seductive, do not sell sex, and so Chiyo—even as she becomes the geisha Sayuri—remains a girl.
“The girl and the child do not become; it is becoming itself that is a child or a girl. The child does not become an adult any more than the girl becomes a woman.” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus)
Sayuri however will have her virginity auctioned off. Once again, the symbol of the rain-shower repeats when at the performance preceding the bidding war to ensue, she dances under staged falling rain. Chiyo/Sayuri’s aqueous blue eyes are another allusion to this water.
“Girls… elud[e] the theological order of rationality that fixes identities into being not becoming” (McAvan, The Becoming Girl of the Virgin Mary, Rhizomes, Issues 22, 2011).
The theme repeats in the film: “she told me I was like water,” “I see water in you,” and so on. Like the Deleuzian-Guattarian “becoming-girl,” water is always flowing and not easily blocked. Sayuri rides a “plane of consistency” through every crooked alley of the Pleasure District and dramatic complication. “[T]he becoming-girl ‘slips through’ orders” (McAvan), and so at last, in the final scene of the film, Chiyo and the Chairman embrace, seeming to reaffirm patriarchy, capitalism, familism and the romantic couple.
“To a man, Geisha can only be half a wife. We are the wives of nightfall. And yet… a little girl with more courage than she knew, would find that her prayers were answered. Can that not be called happiness?”