I first got interested in the book after seeing the movie. As with so many other cinematizations, the book was better. (Plus I didn’t get annoyed at the sound of Chinese actors trying to speak Japanese-accented English.) It’s an easy read, with the geisha Sayuri’s first person account told in simple, plain language, heavily peppered with evocative — though sometimes awkward — metaphors. I was something of a samurai-obsessed feudal-era Japanophile in my youth, so aspects of the story were tempered with a bit of familiarity, but the geisha’s world revealed in Memoirs — the intricate web of female competition, the subtle dance between eroticism and entertainment, the ingrained superstition of reliance on fortune-telling almanacs — was nonetheless totally exotic, especially contrasted with the abrupt cultural changes brought on by World War II and increasing Westernization.
From a twenty-first century American perspective, one could not help but feel saddened at the prospect of a life very much like slavery, in which the best material goal one could hope for was to be mistress to a danna. However, the book suffers from something of an unbalanced focus on these details of a geisha’s life, with much made of mizuage and danna and the geisha’s role as ornamental conversation piece and wine server to the rich and powerful — but at the expense of telling of the real meat of the geisha’s existence: the performing arts. There is mention of dancing and theater and shamisen, but from the way the narrative flows, one would think these were mere background to the semi-erotic relational aspects of Sayuri’s life. I would have appreciated much more some cultural treatise on the arts in the context of early 20th Century Japan. But that was not the author’s intent.
An important note on Memoirs: the author, Arthur Golden, was sued by his primary interviewee, the famous Kyoto geisha Mineko Iwasaki, for breach of contract and defamation of character. Iwasaki claims that Golden promised her anonymity, and that the Mizuage part of the story was completely false, along with other implications of high-class prostitution. The two settled out of court in 2002 for an undisclosed sum, and Iwasaki published her own book about the life of a geisha, appropriately named Geisha, a Life. The book is meant to be autobiographical, and lacks the more lurid fantasy/fairytale aspects of Memoirs, but is at least closer to the truth about the life of geisha in Kyoto — at least as Iwasaki wishes it told.