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27 June 2008

MOVIE COMMENTARY - Dear Mr. Spielberg: Why Update an Outdated Stereotype? (Reprint)

Dear Mr. Steven Spielberg:

What can one say to one of the most powerful men in Los Angeles when he continues to show what seems to be a biased sense of social responsibility?

You've received awards and accolades for taking on social issues. You produced and directed the 1992 Schindler's List, giving a new phrase to the modern world. Anyone who saved people's lives during the Holocaust became a Schindler instead of a Raoul Wallenberg. For that, you got an Oscar for best picture and best director and Bundesverdienstkreuz mit Stern for a responsible representation of German history. If only there were an award for irresponsible misrepresentation of Asian or Oriental history.

As a director and a producer, you brought a bit of American history to light with your 1997 Amistad, increasing our awareness about the public debate and socio-political aspects of slavery and racism in the mid-1800s. You had earlier shown a sensitivity toward black Americans in the 1985 The Color Purple. So you showed concern for the politically powerful black American. Kudos to you.

You've shown us the savagery of war in both the overt sense in your 1998 Saving Private Ryan and the 2001 mini-series that you produced, Band of Brothers. You've shown the ability to see the brutality of war when it is covert in your current controversial film, Munich.

You've shown a sense of social responsibility toward our World War II veterans, the Jewish victims of the Nazi Germany and black Americans under the oppression of racism and slavery, yet what you haven't shown is a sensitivity toward Asians and Asian Americans.

You chose to produce (and almost directed), Memoirs of a Geisha. Was this just because it was a popular book? Couldn't a man as powerful as you have found a vehicle that enlightened the American public about heroic Japanese men or women?

Since the turn of last century, Japanese women have been haunted by the Western man's fantasy of the geisha. During the height of their popularity, the women involved in geisha were only a little over 1/1000 of the total population (roughly 80,000 geisha in the 1920s compared to the total population of 54,000,000 in 1920). Samurai only made up about 8 percent of the population of Japan.

Yet Americans and Europeans are still fascinated by both the samurai and the geisha. And at a time when the history of Japan and the Japanese culture is more readily available to Americans, we still get more about geisha instead of the extraordinary women who made history or advocated change.

Americans, like you, seem to prefer Akira Kurosawa to Juzo Itami or Yoji Yamada or Kon Ichikawa.

There were certainly noteworthy women, women who do not fit the stereotype of the passive, demure Japanese butterfly. What about Masako Hojo? What about Tomoe Gozen? What about Hangaku Gozen? What about Noe Ito? What about Suga Kanno? What about Waka Yamada? What about Raicho Hiratsuka?

I have not seen the movie, Memoirs of a Geisha, yet from the trailers I know that authenticity was not an important aspect of the production. The hairstyles and the dance were far from authentic.

I wasn't the only one who thought so. My suspicions were confirmed when I read a review by a woman who had spent part of her childhood in the geisha district. The Japan Times critic, Kaori Shoji, wrote:

Marshall and his crew (and let's not forget that Steven Spielberg is the executive producer) never pause for breath as they bombard us with pathos, intrigue, fury, sex and passion. The capper is a geisha dance scene that's straight out of Broadway. Never mind that no young geisha in the prewar period would wear glitter eye-shadow and dance solo, on a stage with artsy blue lighting, her hair flowing hip and loose and her limbs contorting to snazzy, modern ballet movements.

Further, the casting of ethnic Chinese actresses not only seemed to signal a disinterest in authenticity, but also an insensitivity to the socio-political conditions of Asia. Japan, unlike America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, is not dominated by a population made up of the descendants of immigrants from Europe. Japan was a country that had, like Korea, been closed up for hundreds of years, opening up by force in the mid-1800s. Japanese, like many East Asians feel they can tell nationality.

Keeping the war movies produced in the 1940s in mind, it would seem hardly surprising to see Chinese playing Japanese. World War II was a time of booming business for Chinese American actors in Hollywood. Oddly enough, there had been a concerted effort at the beginning of hostilities to distinguish our enemies (the Japanese) from our allies (the Chinese). Life magazine had an article called, "How to Tell Japs from the Chinese," in December of 1941.

The reality is that one can't always tell. Some Japanese can pass as Chinese. Some Chinese can pass as Japanese. Some Japanese have a hard time passing as Japanese. Yet this shouldn't be a surprise. Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas are both Jewish, but can pass for other ethnicities.

Yet, the casting of three Chinese actresses in the lead roles seems to support this concept that all Asian look alike as far as Hollywood is concerned. Do these women have the typical Japanese look? Not really. One wonders why such a powerful people as you, Spielberg, weren't willing to take the same chances that the people behind the Harry Potter series took where all the leads were British. One of the movies that is beating Memoirs of a Geisha features British lead actors who are unknowns - Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

To say that perhaps Japanese actresses weren't comfortable auditioning for an American movie because of their English is a bit of Hollywood amnesia. Universal's 1999 Snow Falling on Cedars had no problem finding a brave Japanese actress (Youki Kudoh) to portray an American of Japanese descent. She spoke accented English, perhaps in keeping with a stereotype that Americans of Japanese descent weren't quite American. You can see her in Memoirs of a Geisha playing the role of Pumpkin.

I'm not the only person who somewhat disbelieves the PR line being fed the media that the choice was based on international recognition and acting ability. As one writer, Philip Brasor, who based in Japan wrote for the Japan Times:

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.

Despite what Marshall claims, Brasor has another salient point:

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."

Sayuri is the title used in Japan for Memoirs of a Geisha. I guess the PR people have found that for American audiences Asian women all do look alike or their names are just too hard to pronounce and remember.

Brasor apparently attended the press conference and wasn't impressed by Rob Marshall's explanations. As for authenticity, you didn't have live in the geisha districts or be a Japanese culture scholar to discern authenticity in the movie. Brasor assesses it in this way:

"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.

As the Japan Times critic Shoji points out, Marshall met the challenge by making a Kyoto in California that "reeks of a souvenir shop extravaganza." You don't have to be an Asian woman or even an Asian American woman to see that point either.

Perhaps you, Mr. Spielberg, feel somewhat vindicated because the Japanese press hasn't been so critical if you cared what the Japanese press said at all. However, Brasor points out:

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 dialog 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."

The Japan Times critic, Kaori Shoji, wasn't deterred by the studios apparently. Her review was savage.

There are just so many things wrong with the whole package, which is plastered with kitschy oriental cliches. We're talking about a Chinese actress speaking in that stilted Hollywood Asian-English (immortalized by Mr. Yuniyoshi in "Breakfast at Tiffany's") in the role of a Japanese geisha during the Sino-Japanese conflict of the 1930s. It's hard to know how to handle this: go ballistic, start apologizing, giggle nervously or what?

For those that don't know or remember, Yuniyoshi was played by Mickey Rooney.

I would further suggest that perhaps many Japanese actresses weren't auditioning because they knew that there had been a defamation suit against the author of the book and the publisher in both Japan and the US. The lawsuit was settled out of court and the person in question, Mineko Iwasaki, has written her own story. The author of the book publicly used a real person's name when exploiting the titillation factor to sex up his book signings--he mentioned her name when talking about the bidding wars to buy her virginity. This would have been considered inappropriate behavior for an American about an American woman so how are we to consider the author who would do so? The defamation suit also makes it clear that the author also displays a very implicit misunderstanding of the Japanese culture.

As was reported in the Japan Times:

Mineko filed suit last Wednesday [The article was printed on 1 May 2001] in a New York court, claiming Golden's use of her name constituted breach of contract and wrongly linked her with episodes in the book that she calls inaccurate and defamatory.

She first raised objections to the mention of her name, and that of her husband, shortly after receiving galley proofs of the book in English, a language she does not read.

"I complained and asked him what he thought he was doing," she recalled. "I demanded that he take my name out. But he said that he felt personally obliged to acknowledge me. 'I've made you famous,' he told me. I told him that it didn't matter how he felt, I was bothered."

According to Mineko, photos she supplied Golden of her kimonos and other private possessions began appearing in promotional articles for the book without her consent. She was mentioned prominently in interviews Golden gave to the media in which he said Mineko had been sold by her parents to a geisha house and her virginity had been auctioned off for the sum of 100 million yen, things she said are patently false. But in the public's mind, the link between the book's main character and her had been established.

It wasn't until the 1999 publication of the Japanese translation, titled Sayuri, that she began to consider legal recourse. What most readers perceived to be an informed and sensitive portrayal of a world she had known from the age of 6 appeared to her a lurid depiction of geisha as scheming prostitutes. She also found many inaccuracies.

"Everything is wrong," she said. "In the book, a geisha was beaten with a hanger and crippled. There is a very strict rule that 'maiko' (apprentice geisha) and geisha should never be beaten. We are precious goods and the livelihood of the 'okiya' (geisha houses) depends on us."

Golden comes off as a cad and a man who either didn't care about his so-called friend, the famous geisha, or truly didn't understand Japan and the geisha culture. Why else would he subject a friend to public humiliation and calls for ritual suicide? Even in America, a friend wouldn't reveal another friend's intimate secrets just to sell his book or sex-up his book signings. Even America, such a man would be called a cad.

Was this then, a really good choice for a major movie about a specific subculture in another culture? Will this elicit a greater understanding between Americans and Japanese or Americans and other Asians?

This movie, as did the book, renewed interest in the geisha in a way that is oddly nostalgic - looking back at a time when the only way, the only world where women had control of their lives and the possibility of financial independence was by humoring and entertaining wealthy men.

As another writer, Roger Pulvers, for the Japan Times writes:

As its Web site tells us, the movie is "set in a mysterious and exotic world" of geisha houses before, during and immediately after World War II. It is a fairytale take on what was at best a demeaning and soul-destroying institution. Yet among the many popular misrepresentations of Japanese reality since the country came out of its international isolation 150 years ago — from "Madame Butterfly" to "The Last Samurai" - this is one of the most blatantly pernicious.

Mr. Spielberg, I've seen your 1987 Empire of the Sun, but I wonder if your concept of Asia--and what used to constitute the so-called Orient--isn't stuck in the 1930s-1940s. I am sure Egyptians and Arabs weren't thrilled with Young Sherlock Holmes which seemed to hark back to the 1939 Gunga Din as did your feast of chilled monkey brains at the Pankot Palace in the 1984 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

I spoke with a man who recalled being questioned by his classmates about eating monkey's brains. Like the TV series Kung Fu, that has become a part of the American cultural view of Asia to a certain extent. I have read some reviews of people who feel that Memoirs of a Geisha is an authentic rendering of the Japanese culture and have no idea about the lawsuit and the social implications it might also engender. Roger Ebert prefaces his review with: "I suspect that the more you know about Japan and movies, the less you will enjoy Memoirs of a Geisha." Ebert was also troubled by the nostalgia evoked for a past system that emphasized how oppressed women really were in a society. Would the 1978 movie Pretty Baby ever be remade with a sense of loss that such a world - where 12-year-olds had their virginity auctioned off - had passed?

Why, in this day and age, make a movie that works best when the viewer knows nothing about the culture? Why make a movie that laments the passing of the geisha system as represented (or misrepresented according to Iwasaki) by Golden?

Another question that I longed to ask was also put forth to the man who produced Amistad by Pulvers:

Imagine a story set in United States in the pre-Civil War South in which the slaves are portrayed as locked in internecine in-fighting as one of them, the most innocent, longs to be rescued by a Prince Charming in the guise of a noble white plantation owner. Would there be anything mysterious and exotic about the everyday life of the slaves? This is analogous to what Memoirs of a Geisha, transposed to 20th-century Japan, is doing.

Would you, Mr. Spielberg make such a movie and suggest a sense of loss? Mr. Spielberg, you have brought the realities of the European war and American slavery to the screen and yet, Pulvers wonders, much like myself, why chose fantasy over reality in the case of Japan?

Pulvers suggests there are some explanations:

In the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the West, for the most part, wanted to keep Japan quaint, picturesque - and on its knees. Virtually all Westerners allied themselves with the most reactionary social institutions and their propagators, seeing that as a sure way to arrest Japan's entry into the West's exclusive club of the Great Powers.

But what obliges film producers like Steven Spielberg to spin a sick little tale like "Memoirs of a Geisha" now that Japan is in many respects a full-fledged member of the Western club? Spielberg, who in his movies generally deals with bizarre fantasies and heroic historical figures, seems to have inadvertently mixed the two together in this film.

As an Asian American woman, I wonder how far-reaching this movie's imagery will be and how long Asian and Asian American women will be haunted by the West's nostalgic view of geisha.

There is more to Japan than the geisha and the samurai. I guess someone else, some other producer will have to bring that to the screen some day.

Reprinted from 1 January 2006. Originally published on the blog magazine Blog Critics and my old now-defunct blog.

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