Education About Asia: Online Archives

Con/texts for Viewing Geisha

Download PDF

Arthur Golden’s 1997 novel Memoirs of a Geisha remains remarkably popular among college students. (note 1) Yet far more of our students are likely to have watched the 2005 film version (Rob Marshall, director) than to have read the book. (note 2) Like the book, the appeal of the film is rooted, in large part, in its claim of authenticity and its capacity to present a complex, exotic world that fuses erotic sensibilities with the rigid conventions of geisha performance art. Anne Allison’s thoughtful 1999 review of the novel identified a range of reader-responses, notably her concept of “distanced intimacy,” that sought to explain how, despite its misleading claim of historical accuracy, it could engage the interest and attention of so many readers in what is fundamentally an Orientalist fantasy. Similarly, the film’s claim of scrupulous accuracy in historical detail, despite the halting English dialogue delivered by a cross-national cast, infuses the contemporary images and stereotypes that our students carry into the classroom.


1. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Golden’s novel returned to the top of the list of campus best-sellers in late 2005, and remained at or near that position since then (through March 2006). “What They’re Reading on College Campuses.” January 27; February 24; April 21: a10.

2. A theatrical box office of over $57 million ($158 million, worldwide), and an additional rental of $30 million, yields a very rough estimate of 8 million theatrical and 10 million couch-potato viewers. In print, Memoirs of a Geisha sold over 4 million copies in the US, though the 1999 Japanese translation (Sayuri, trans. Ogawa Takayoshi), published by Bungei Shunju, sold 116,000 hardbacks and 222,000 paperbacks.