Monday, March 28, 2005

Memoirs of a Geisha: Controversies

Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, 1939
The summer that I spent in Japan, five years ago, was an invaluable experience, no detail of which I will ever forget. However, despite my wonderful host parents, teachers, and students, there were those moments when I was, briefly, put on the spot as an American…. when talking about Hiroshima, taking showers in the morning, and of course, Hollywood. I cannot count how many times I was asked, not in a hostile way, but in a curious and serious way, “Why do Americans think we all look alike?” “Why don’t you know the names of any Japanese actors?” “Don’t you know that the woman who plays Miss Saigon is Filipina?” etc, etc.

And so, it is with these voices in my mind that I have to approach the upcoming Memoirs of a Geisha film, slated for a December release. In a recent LA Times article, the director of the film, Rob Marshall, defended his casting of Chinese and other non-Japanese actors in critical roles, a position which has caused a flurry of letters to the editor, and online debates. With the film in post production and its release a long ways off, expect many more posts and articles on the subject on the Black Moon as the months go by. For now, however, I’ll weigh in on the casting controversy, to which even producer Steven Spielberg felt it necessary to respond.

After 150 years, it would really be nice if Americans finally got a realistic portrayal of Japan. Not a dubbed and edited cartoon, not a racist rip-off of a game show, not a legacy of war and imperialism, not yet another story about Japan told through Western eyes. Hollywood does indeed have a horrible legacy when it comes to relations with Japan, from wartime propaganda films, to generations of white actors with taped eyes, and more recently, modern “Japanexploitation” films where violence, sex, and more violence is the name of the game. We’re talking about a Hollywood that just a few years ago, made a piece of jingoistic bilge like Pearl Harbor, and then turned around and marketed an edited version back to the Japanese as a love story.

So yes, I would love to see an accurate, authentic film about 1930s Japan, maybe even one about geisha. I’d like to see it in Japanese with English subtitles, and I’d like to see it accurately reflect Japanese culture, aesthetics, history, values, and then some. I know it can be done, if people will it to be so…. see how anime in the West, in just a few years, has gone from cult-following to Academy Award-winning status. Even recent Japanese horror movie remakes, like The Grudge and The Ring 2, used the original Japanese directors. But can we expect such an ideal film as I described, from writers like Arthur Golden, and filmmakers Rob Marshall and Steven Spielberg? When we already know that Spielberg rejected the advice of Akira Kurosawa, to produce the film in Japanese with subtitles? Alas, dear readers, I suspect Hollywood has taken the wrong path, yet again. (posted by J.)