Proving it to the people

by Philip Brasor

While waiting for the news conference to begin for “Sayuri” at the Imperial Hotel on Nov. 28, two Japanese women were discussing Zhang Ziyi, the Chinese actress who plays the title role of a geisha during the years leading up to and immediately following World War II.

Neither seemed particularly bothered by the casting choice; certainly not as bothered as some Japanese are reported to be. Both had just attended the preview screening in Shinbashi. “She was good,” one of them said. ” ‘Asian Beauty,’ right?”

Her friend laughed. By “Asian Beauty,” the woman was referring to the catch copy of a television commercial for hair-care products that features Zhang. In the ad, the actress receives some sort of beauty pageant award and the Western white women in attendance look at her with undisguised envy and resentment. It’s an awful commercial in more ways than one, referencing Japanese women’s supposed long-standing feeling of inferiority toward Western women. Inevitably, you wonder why the ad company didn’t use a Japanese actress in the commercial.

Hollywood? Well, that’s what they do. Three of the four geisha characters in “Sayuri” are played by Chinese or ethnic Chinese actresses. The producers could have found capable Japanese had they really put their minds to it, but I have yet to hear a Japanese media person say as much. It’s a Hollywood project, which means it has little to do with Japan. Anyone who watches the final product can see that for themselves.

Because Japanese film critics are professionally beholden to local distributors, they aren’t going to complain about it in their reviews. Even the occasionally caustic TV talent-cum-movie-critic Osugi called “Sayuri” a “gorgeous fantasy” in his ready-made blurb, thus telling readers they shouldn’t expect anything remotely authentic. The producers were selling this same line back in January at the first Japanese news conference for the movie, when director Rob Marshall called it a “fable” in an effort to pre-empt possible criticism that he wouldn’t know a geisha if she hit him in the face with her shamisen.

Now that it’s too late to turn back, Marshall can be as effusive as he wants. “You have to understand what an honor it was,” he told the media on Nov. 28 during his opening remarks, “not only to bring this beautiful novel to the screen, but to work with these extraordinary actors — who I think are truly the greatest actors in the world.” Hyperbole comes naturally at news conferences, but this was overreaching. Did Marshall really believe that Zhang Ziyi was “the only actress who could play Sayuri?” And what exactly did he mean when he said, “This kind of movie is never made?”

The director probably did believe he was “clarifying for the world what a geisha is,” but did he ever watch, say, Mikio Naruse’s movies from the 1950s, when the world that Sayuri lived in was still a recent memory? In those movies, the geisha don’t engage in professional cat fights on the melodramatic scale of “All About Eve,” or dedicate their entire lives to the kind of romantic ideals codified in “Pretty Woman.”

“The challenge for me as a Westerner,” Marshall elaborated, “was to bring this world to life. . . . It was really an artistic impression of that world.” In other words, a personal fantasy.

American critics who disliked the movie tended to harp on this point, since they thought Marshall betrayed the authority of Arthur Golden’s heavily researched novel by making it into a Harlequin romance. It’s a valid criticism insofar as the book, which was a huge best seller in the United States, is the only real “star” of the project.

Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh may have been cast because they were in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the biggest Asian box-office success on U.S. soil, but the vast majority of moviegoers don’t know them. Apparently, their names weren’t even mentioned in the American trailers for “Sayuri.”

The mainstream Japanese press isn’t as opinionated in its coverage. For that you’d have to go to the blogs or the online magazines, like Ryu Murakami’s Japan Mail Media, whose New Jersey-based correspondent, Akihiko Reisen, wrote a dense article on the movie. Interestingly, he mentioned the use of English dialogue as being one of its main drawbacks, but not for the obvious reasons. Having everyone speak English turned the story into a “flat-sounding play,” he wrote, as if it were being put on by a high-school troupe.

Reisen’s main complaint, however, was that the movie reinforces Japanese “gender stereotypes,” especially the male characters “who speak very little, but still control all the females.” It’s difficult to know what he means by this — if anything defines a geisha’s position it’s her subservient relationship to the men she’s entertaining — but it may be a reaction to Ken Watanabe’s “Chairman,” a character that Marshall referred to as “mythic,” but in cinematic terms is a big bore. Reisen found Watanabe an embarrassment. He didn’t assert himself as an actor the way he did in “The Last Samurai.” In contrast, Reisen thought the Chinese actresses tried hard to make the material their own, even if they were doing it wrong. Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, he said, “dominate their scenes.”

Zhang certainly dominated the press conference. Though she spoke only briefly, she did so in off-the-cuff English, which impressed the media more than her answers did. One journalist asked her and Michelle Yeoh directly about playing Japanese women, while another asked Ken Watanabe and Koji Yakusho how the women did. Everyone was too polite to say anything truly interesting in reply, but someone had to ask those questions.

There was one question that nobody had the courage to ask, but Zhang answered it anyway. “I really am grateful to Rob Marshall for giving us this incredible chance to show the world Asian actors’ ability,” she said during one of her remarks. “I think we can do so much more than what people think.” It was meant as a show of solidarity (See? We can do Hollywood fluff), but you have to wonder who those “people” are. Zhang may have been talking about U.S. audiences in general, or she could have been referring to her own country’s show-biz reporters, who portray her as being arrogant and proud. But I couldn’t help thinking that a few members of the audience probably imagined that she was talking about them.