In honour of my recent trip to Japan, I have decided that I would discuss one of my favourite books as a child—Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. This story has long been a childhood favourite of mine, and inspired some of the places that I wished to visit (and did!)—such as Gion. However, when I have recently re-read the book, some of my feelings have changed for the story for better or worse. I think it is to contrast my thoughts regarding this story from then and now; I will be discussing my original thoughts on this story as well as my latest after the most recent re-read of this novel.
Here is what I initially thought about the book:
- This is a story that has an episodic feel to it, with many small plot events pushing the main plot and the story along. Therefore, something is always happening to either Sayuri or the geisha community. I was never bored of the story, although I wished that Golden would introduce the world of Gion sooner as I found the Sayuri’s pre-Gion days to be rather long and bleak without adding too much to the story (it really could have been cut down by a chapter or two).
- I adored all the details about the geisha community, from how often their hairstyles were changed to how they change their sleeping patterns to accommodate for said elaborate hairstyles, and how many classes that geishas would have to take and as well as the complex older/younger sisters ceremony. It made me felt like I understood more about what it takes for someone to become a geisha and how did a regular girl transformed into a geisha.
- Golden had vivid descriptions of the clothes, the locations, and the individuals so I could envision all the characters like a movie or TV series in my head. This was before seeing the movie version which actually let me down quite a bit, and I much prefer the imagery that I had conjured in my head.
- Sayuri has a very interesting “voice”; both in the sense that she sounded “foreign” and that she was interesting with her little observations about the geisha community and her circumstances. Sometimes the metaphors were slightly heavy, but I thought that help add the allure to the idea that this story took place in a complete different culture and world than what one would normally glimpse.
Upon the re-read though, I found I have many different opinions regarding the book and the story that Golden was telling. First of all, I still have to applaud Golden for his description and his details about the geisha community to make it seem authentic, despite the controversy saying that many of the details are pure fiction. However, since some of the major plot points do hinge on the so-called customs of the geishas, it feels rather cheap and Golden manipulated the plot and what geishas do exacerbate the conflict and leading to more angst.
However, that is not the biggest issue I have with the story. What I am really annoyed is how almost everyone’s characterization is—either their back-story is not developed properly or they literally embody a cliché or both. The whole Sayuri and Mameha vs. Hatsumomo seem weak now since Golden never develops Hatusmomo as a character. He prefers to remind the reader every opportunity that he can that she is an evil person who is out to do evil things, particularly to poor innocent little Sayuri. While I do not condone Hatsumomo’s actions, I feel very sorry for her since the whole geisha profession according to Golden’s descriptions it is hinged on beauty, youth, and wit. Hatsumomo is only growing older throughout the book with no security for herself, it makes sense for her to be cruel and spiteful to those that she believes will affect her income and want to look out for herself by having Pumpkin adopted by Mother. Mameha is also another unbelievable character, since she is introduced as this very wise geisha and she remains the same throughout the entire story which spans many years without her evolving as a person—it is her role to be Sayuri’s mentor and to make sure Sayuri succeeds. This is another pity because I would have loved to see what led Mameha to be this perfect geisha on the outside with wisdom to match, and yet still understand that no girl becomes a geisha because she wants to be one, but rather because the girl has no choice.
As for Sayuri/Chiyo/any other name that she is known for, the more I read the book my annoyance towards her increases tenfold. This is a character with little agency and does nothing about it, or does not even reflect or understand that she has no agency. She is the ultimate Barbie doll where she just sits around having other people lecture her and then she will earn her happy ending because she is the main character. The only thing that she ever wanted is to be the Chairman’s girlfriend, a man that she met when she is still a child and he is kind to her on a bridge. It appears that her entire motivation of becoming a geisha or living is to pursue this highly fantastical romance with the Chairman. And if she is not the main character, there is absolutely no chance of her being with him: they rarely interact, she knows nothing about the Chairman other than through second-hand knowledge passed by others around Gion and she is constantly creeping around trying to be in the same room/event as the Chairman to stare at him. The whole romance in this story is terrible since it not only reduces the main character to a single-minded individual who will pursue this romance at all costs while knowing nothing about the romantic interest that she is pursuing, but also destroying other lives and relationships that are important to the main character.
Out of all the characterization, the only one that seemed plausible and layered is Nobu. He appears to be prickly and exacting, yet he is a loyal friend once you have earned his trust. Best of all, there is even a very small backstory about him that allows the reader to understand why he acts this way. Instead of just saying kind words, Nobu actually takes action to prove his worth, kindness, and friendship. And his friendship with Sayuri is one of if not my favourite relationships in the book, since he respects her and wants the best for her while she treats him normally and can have a conversation with him without resorting to not knowing what to say or pretending that she is someone else. I actually never rooted a romance between them to blossom mostly because I think Nobu is too good for Sayuri, but I really enjoyed the authentic friendship between them.
The plot is still as fast-paced as I remembered, although I wish that the larger historical context could have been better incorporated in the story other than the last portion about World War Two. Plenty happened during the thirties regarding Japanese Empire and I wished that more of those details could have been included.
The final verdict: do I still love this book? It is tough since I always think of it as a great childhood favourite of mine and I always wanted to visit Gion because of this book, but I have to say that upon re-reading many of the magic faded for me. While it is an entertaining read that leads to an eventual happy ending, I was too annoyed by many characters and choices that the author made to truly enjoy this book again. I do think that it is an interesting read though for someone who wants to just escape into a fantasy has no magic, although one may still need to look past some dubious choices that characters make.