Review: The Geisha (1983)

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The Geisha, Hideo Gosha’s award winning drama, wants to be a big, prestige feature, and it succeeds part of the time.  The rest of the time it wallows in its own brand of melodrama that betrays Gosha’s television roots.

The story is set in 1933 and it follows Katsuzo, a man who was once in love with a geisha and who had planned her escape from that life so that they might start a family together.  When she’s tragically killed, he gives their daughter over to the geisha house and spends the bulk of his time trying to find respite.  That girl grows up to be Momowaka, the greatest geisha in town, and Katzuso becomes a sort of pimp for the geisha house.  His lover, and surrogate daughter, is at odds with Momowaka and thus begins a cycle of conflicts and betrayals that ends with almost all of the main characters dead.  Believe me when I tell you this is no spoiler, as you’ll recognize these characters’ tragic paths from the very beginning.

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I knew Gosha best as the creator of the TV series (and subsequent film) Three Outlaw Samurai.  His work there is solid but it lacks that certain visual panache that distinguishes most of the best film directors.  That shortcoming is seen in The Geisha as well.  It constantly reminded me of the old Charlie’s Angels TV series both in its presentation style and in its music.  I imagine that the look of late seventies American television had just hit Japan when this was being produced in the early eighties.  Gosha must have liked this “new” aesthetic a lot as he emulates it with aplomb.  It’s too bad he didn’t choose to copy Coppola or Peckinpah instead.

It’s not that The Geisha is a bad feature.  It isn’t.  It’s one of the few Japanese films that I’ve seen tackle the 1930s and it’s interesting to see their pre-war culture’s obsession with all things western.  Whether this was imagined or not is inconsequential.  It remains an interesting east-meets-west stew of aesthetics and ideas you don’t usually see in Japanese cinema.

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All of the performances are top notch, including the great Ken Ogata as Katsuzo and the beautiful Atsuko Asana as Tamako, the daddy’s girl.  Unfortunately, Kimiko Ikegami can’t quite keep up, but as the great geisha, Momowaka, she hardly has to.  It’s later in the film, when Momowaka is to become a more well-rounded person that Ikegami can’t quite handle the heavy lifting.

I mentioned the music before, but it bears expanding on because it was such a sore spot for me.  There are some motivated pieces of classical Japanese and contemporary big band music that work just fine, but the score by Kurosawa composer Masaru Sato is just plain bad.  I expect my reaction to is has a lot to do with the thirty years that have passed since this film was made, but every single cue got on my nerves for being so separate from the onscreen action.  I could imagine grindhouse aficionados really digging the music here, but to me, it’s an earsore.

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On the plus side, the cinematography here is by the great Fujiro Morita.  If you’ve read even a smattering of my other reviews, you’ll recognize his name from Daimajin, Sleepy Eyes of Death and various Zatoichi pictures.  He does a great job keeping the audience focused on the main characters within what are often very crowded scenes.  Most of the film looks great and the shots are all interesting, but even a great cinematographer can’t make up for the failings of his director.

The Geisha is definitely worth a watch as it represents one of the high points of Japanese cinema of the 1980s.  It’s much, much better than the odd film version of Memoirs of a Geisha, but that’s not saying a whole lot.  Highly recommended for Gosha fans.  Marginally recommended for other viewers.

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