The question for authors is whether they have an obligation to be faithful to the culture, language, geography and history of the place where they set a story. Should readers who have no knowledge about a place care whether the details are correct? My answer is that they should. Once literature becomes disconnected from the reality, the story has no real anchor. Over the weekend I had the chance to interview Philip Cunningham, an American author, professor, journalist and expert on Asia. Philip speaks and writes fluently some very difficult languages including Chinese, Japanese, and Thai. He has lived and worked in Asia for many years. I asked him for an opinion on what to look for to judge whether Stephen Spielberg’s Memoirs of a Geisha is authentic. While Philip hasn’t seen the movie, he has seen the trailer, where Hollywood loads the best, hottest scenes to lure the audience to see the whole movie. Philip says he has no interest is seeing the film after having seen the trailer. Here is a seven point checklist to remember when you see the film.
1. The film isn’t shot in Kyoto. Geishas and Kyoto are inseparable. The film is not shot in Kyoto, and that disconnects the culture of geishas from the place where these artists lived. Think of a Japanese movie about Al Capone and the roaring 1920s bootleg industry set in Fargo, North Dakota.
2. There aren’t any actual geishas in the movie. That can be forgiven. No one expects actual gangster to be cast in the Godfather. But has the film re-created the geisha and her place inside the Japanese culture during World War II. The trailer suggests this isn’t the case.
3. There has been controversy about casting Chinese actresses in the lead as the central characters who are geishas. Should anyone outside of Asia care whether the geishas in the film are Chinese or Japanese actress? In the early Vietnam war films, Hollywood often cast Thais as the Vietcong. For anyone living in Asia, listening to the “Vietcong” speak to each other in Thai had most people confused or rolling around the floor with laughter. In North America no one seemed to care. There is an inherent racism in such casting decisions. It isn’t a conscious decision to insult the national pride or ethnic background of anyone but a combination of insensitivity, ignorance, availability of cast, the box office record of an actor that comes into play.
4. Does the director of the movie have experience and knowledge about the country? There is no indication that Rob Marshall was hired because of his deep knowledge of Japanese culture, history, or language. He needed a translator to give directions to the Chinese actresses on the how to behave like a geisha. This is the level of authenticity better suited to making a film like Chicago or King Kong where it is clear the audience is entering an unreal world of fantasy.
5. The movie takes place in a World War II setting but the politics of that dark period are absent from the film. Think of Cabaret shot without any reference to the Nazis.
6. The make-up and costumes are wrong. The geishas wore cake make-up, which made their faces chalk white. The costumes are Hollywood versions, brighter, more colorful than in reality. The geisha was taught to be subtle, stylistic, understated in gestures and word. This appears to have been lost in the film.
7. The dialogue is Americanized. A geisha would unlikely uses phrases such as “I love you” or “I miss you.” Such Hollywood inventions might work to make a North American audience feel warm and happy but it is like having the Vietcong speaking Thai in a film about the Vietnam War. People in Asia who know Japan simply scratch their heads and wonder what kind of drugs the screenwriter had been taking.