Wednesday, November 23, 2005

We are Ninja, Not Geisha

The official movie poster - inaccurate and deceptive.
[ The official movie poster - inaccurate and deceptive. ]

I have a confession to make. I hated "Memoirs of a Geisha" when I read it several years ago, when the novel by Arthur Golden was released in paperback. At the time, it seemed that everyone around me was also reading it, and gushing praise upon it. So, reluctantly, I held back, biding my time until I finally couldn't stand it anymore, and I let loose. My rants focused primarily on the sexual themes of the book, and (not wanting to give away details to those who haven't read it), my belief that they were inappropriate for the subject matter. It seemed to me (and continues to seem) counterproductive in a book that's supposed to help overturn the West's preconceived notions about "geisha" being synonymous with "prostitute"... that there is so much attention paid to the sexual lives of these women, up to and including prostitution. However, it was after reading one particular scene that I was sent over the top; a scene which backed up every Westerner's stereotypical idea of the Japanese man as sexual pervert. Finally, I had to speak up to my reading circle friends, and come clean with my opinions. Amazingly, they still defended it, chocking it all up to the "wonderful sensuality" and allure and, believe it or not, "romance", that they perceived in the tale.

Slowly though, more of those around me came around, as stories began to come out from Japan. Apparently, the book proved none too popular when the translated version hit the bookshelves of the country where the story was set. Readers cited various reasons, mostly having to do with the translation itself, and the disquiet they felt reading this story set in their history, written by an outsider. A very talented Japanese female translator was used for the project, who went out of her way to make sure that the dialogue spoken by the characters, was accurate to the specific time, place, and niche culture of the protagonists. The affect on Japanese readers was puzzling - how could a Western man write this so well? Many ended up giving more credit to the translator than to the original author. And if you can't understand exactly what they're describing, here's an analogy: imagine if a contemporary Japanese author, were to write a novel in the time, place, and language of Jane Austen... and then this was presented to contemporary British audiences. No matter how much study and research this author did, even if the portrayal was perfectly accurate, can you honestly say that the British audience wouldn't find it a just a bit... "off"?

And so, time passed. In retrospect, we began to joke about the book, as just another, modern version of the exotic look at the "Far East" through blue and Western eyes... we moaned at its popularity and status, but otherwise it passed out of our radar. Until, of course, rumors started to fly about production of a film, first with Steven Spielberg's direction and then without, and a few murmorings about casting. Now, here we are, just weeks away from the film's release; here in LA, the billboards and commercials have already hit. Their appearance now, with all that’s going on in the world, and so many years after I had completely dismissed the book, gives off a feeling of nightmarish déjà vu. It's well known by now that the lead role will be played by a Chinese actress, and that most of the cast is comprised of just about every type of Asian except Japanese. Yunjin Kim, already a well known actress in Korea, and now a major player of the hit US TV series "Lost", turned down a role in the film in part because, well, she didn't want her big American movie break to be playing a geisha (and kudos to her). There was even a fascinating back-and-forth in the op-ed section of the LA Times a few months back, in which the filmmakers defending their casting roles, using other racist casting horrors of years past to set precedent for their actions, and basically accusing everyone who doesn't like the casting, to be racist themselves. Are you confused yet?

So you may be asking dear readers, what is the Black Moon's take on all this? Well, we won't be going to see the film, I can assure you that, and we won't sponsor the book or film via ads on this website. The only press we will give this ill-conceived film, will be negative. Perhaps between now and the release, we'll be able to list all our reasons, but I'll end this chapter of the discussion here with this open question: How many more views of "the East" do we need, through Western eyes? When do we get to hear things from their perspective, from the way they want it to be told? (comments by J.)