Monday, November 15, 2010

Geisha of Gion

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When I was eighteen, one of the General Paper teachers lent her copy of Memoirs of a Geisha to my friend. I "sub-borrowed" the book from her, and swiftly finished the book. My impression of the book was not positive, I recall, as I felt that Golden had dumbed the entire Geisha industry into some kind of ostentatious yet sordid form of prostitution. Reading about the "love" between Sayuri (yes I still remember) and the Chairman was disgusting and distasteful. And also the deflowering bidding. If you consider that after 10 years, that is all I can remember of that book, you can imagine what kind of imagery it imprinted on my still impressionable mind.

Never take a foreigner's word when it comes to understanding someone else's culture. What you have is a reshaping, and distortion of the original by the perception and interpretation of an outsider. You can read it for fun, but you must never take it seriously. (probably the reason why I like to read Chinese cookbooks written by Caucasians, for amusement).

I came upon this book during my crazy bid to borrow 24 books from the library in one afternoon. Chucking it into the basket, I wondered to myself if it were to be the continued degradation of the elegant geisha in prose. I decided to give it a chance and am glad I did.

Geisha of Gion is by Mineko Iwasaki, formerly Masako Takanaminamoto of Japanese aristocracy. She was the legendary Geiko who halted her career in her prime and retreated to marriage and art. She believed in promoting and explaining Geisha to outsiders and media and had attempted to drive modern changes in her industry when she was the top Geiko of her time, because she felt that if things don't change, Geisha will just fade away . Unfortunately she was spurned by the stubborn agencies that govern Geisha, and then she was in turn cheated by Arthur Golden, then a penniless dude who wanted to write a book on this closed off world. I "wiki"ed the lady after I was done reading the book because I wanted to know how is she right now. Imagine my shock when I realised that she was the geisha that Golden based Sayuri on. I can only vaguely guess how pissed she must be after she found out that Golden painted the Geisha as a high-class whore, and then thanked her for her contribution to the book.

I am sure a lot of people who read both books draw comparison between Geisha of Gion and Memoirs of a Geisha. Don't. The two books are different. One is non-fictional autobiography while the other, a hot-selling fiction (let's face it, sex sells).

The former is dignified and proud, reflective of Mineko's upper class background and upbringing by the Iwasakis. Her aristocratic family fell onto hard times when her (silly) great grandfather decided to denounce his dukedom and become a commoner. Losing the luxuries overnight so affected her immediate family deeply, that (as usual in Asian societies) her parents traded four daughters out to the karyuki to become geisha, so that they could become self-sufficient and still live in relative luxury (Mineko's polite way of excusing her family for being biased against the girls and keeping the boys. Personally I think it is very fucked up. Why don't they try selling the boys for a change?). Her oldest sister Yaeko reacted badly, destroying her own life in her hatred against her parents. She knew her parents wanted to keep their youngest Masako, and yet while vilifying them for selling her out, she promised Masako to Auntie Oima, proprietress of Iwasaki okiya, who wanted the latter as her successor (atotori).

Mineko, a unbelievably, very serious 5 year old decided to leave her family home and join the Iwasakis though she missed her parents deeply and was sick on the two occasions when she was asked to accept her adoption into the Iwasakis in Family Court. She was conscious of their love but in her bid to harden her heart and lessen their pain of losing her, she pretended to not acknowledge them. She became the Iwasaki atotori and fulfilled the dying Auntie Oima's wish in passing the Maiko exam before the old lady passed away. Her responsibilities weighed heavily on her and she strove to be the top Maiko, then Geiko of her time.

However she did not like being one, so she did not accept new girls into the okiya. Instead she continued to work too hard to support the entire household, fell in love with a married man, made many wrong choices before closing down the okiya at the height of her career.

Mineko described the nuances and intricate details of the Geisha culture that no outsider would know (which of course, Arthur Golden would cover broadly), like the delicate beauty of her painstakingly crafted kinomo, the ritualistic application of her makeup and her hair ornaments matching the exact season of the year. Even the color of the silk gauze or crepe collars that is handsewn into her white blouse (hadajuban) have significant meaning.

Yet she also covered the nitty gritty of the every day life in the okiya, the accounting of yesterday's hanadai, cleaning of the front of the house, preparation of the kinomo and dresses, steps and procedures to dressing a geiko, etc, as well as the rules, rituals and limitations that people in the Gion face.

The amount of work that goes into each Geisha' s and their fellow colleagues in the okiya is very impressive, e.g. studying in the afternoon their customer's preferences and industry so that they could make intelligent, witty conversation later in the night, going to each ochaya and paying their respects to the ochaya proprietors and their senior Geiko and Maiko, wearing elegant but heavy outfit and gear that outweighed themselves.

The autobiography is mostly elegant (I detest the part about her admitted affair with the married Toshio) and captured the beauty and sophistication of the dying Geisha culture for generations to read. I was extremely affected by the death of wise and loving Auntie Oima and Mineko's horrendous, incestuous attempted rape by her nephew.

If you want to read about the Geisha culture, this is the book (don't read too deeply into Mineko's life). Don't read Arthur Golden's book unless you are just looking for a quick read.

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