Philip Zitowitz

1358336611

Abstract:

A geisha’s communicative style with clients is a form of performance art. It combines the subtle interplay of concealment with the oblique hint of possibility,with restraint and mild flirtatiousness. It is a demure art and a saucy conversational skill. TheatreWorks Geisha strove mightily to present this image of the geisha to the world, and to reveal the private life of the geisha. It tried to celebrate the exacting discipline and artistic education that a geisha in training must endure. It aspired to reveal the inter-relationships between the geisha and the artistic team that helps her prepare for nightly performances. TheatreWorks’Geisha plays with the concept and image of the geisha, making use of Japanese performers and dance routines. But for all its good intentions, it never allows the real geisha to emerge.

We have yet to demystify the Geisha on stage. We have yet to reveal those protective patterns of behaviour that both draw in and create distance. Maybe it is this ultimate ineluctability of representing her “flower and willow” world that oddly links one part of her life to magicians, who are sworn to keep the tricks of their trade a secret. Perhaps the mystification, distortion, and secrecy of the Geisha actually enhance her allure. Come to think of it, misrepresentation may be the best form of presentation.

Mineko Iwasaki, Japan's most famous living geisha, entertaining Prince Charles.
Mineko Iwasaki, Japan’s most famous living geisha, entertaining Prince Charles.

TheatreWork’s Geisha (2006) should have been a smash hit. It had all the elements for success. It had a talented, multicultural cast. It boasted a subject that is very much in vogue—the geisha. It was positioned to take advantage of a heightened interest in Asia as both an economic and artistic tiger. But the theatrical world in this case mimicked the contrarian sensibility of an investor: an investment that seems too good to fail, can’t help but fail. And such was the fate of Geisha.

Expectations can run so high that a theatrical production loses its ability to shock, to surprise, and to transcend. Of course, as critics, we would much prefer a universal ethic that gives absolute sanctity to the holy trinity of the dramatic arts: great acting and direction, an inspired production team, and a cohesive script. But the truth is, for a production to truly come into its own as an artistic exemplar, it must go beyond this trinity. It must also overcome prevailing standards of cultural taste and implied critical assumptions, and find its own inner authenticity.

We admire the virtues of this production of TheatreWorks’ Geisha, which is so much more enlightened in concept and sensibility than its predecessors on screen as well as on film. Geisha, The Story of A Teahouse (1896) was a stereotypical nightmare in the tradition of Madame Butterfly.

The film Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) based on a novel of the same name, strives to be culturally authentic, but misuses three hugely talented Chinese actresses. The result: a gooey, artificial chop suey of exoticism, eroticism and voyeurism.

This was not the case with Geisha. If we look carefully at the directorial concept and text, we find that director, Ong Ken Sen, and playwright, Robin Loon. grasp the geisha’s cultural importance. They are aware of how the West has distorted the image of the geisha. They believe strongly in the vitality of Asian artistic forms, and developed a production that was confidently multi-cultural, precociously aware of its own intercultural dialogue, and, all the while, never took itself so seriously that it could not reflect on its material without a bit of self-parody. The set was minimalist with platforms and curtains; the stage was not cluttered with extras and scenic excess. The three talented performers used dialogue taken from the real lives of geishas and geisha-in-training (maiko), the hairdressers, the kimono makers, the dressers, and the make-up artists, in order to ground the production in reality. Finally, so it seemed, there was a non-Western scriptwriter who had done his/her homework, who knew the cultural milieu, and who understood that it is critical for international audiences to better understand the real cultural significance of the geisha. Thus the play took into account that geishas were woefully misrepresented by Western notions of a fantastical, exotic Orient, often in the form of lurid accounts of GIs in occupied Japan—soldiers who probably never met a professionally trained geisha.

The actors, too, understood the historic sensitivity of the material and the need to rehabilitate the image of the geisha in the Western imagination. The playwright searched for a formula to achieve this authenticity, while at the same time making light of this quixotic adventure. The quest for the holy grail of Eastern sensibility plus global diversity informed the casting. The Kabuki onnagata, Gojo Masanosuke, played his role with the discipline and concentration from decades of training. Karen Kandel was engaging and energetic in her role as cultural intermediary between the West and the East—and a sobering reminder that while the geisha is quintessentially Japanese, the exploitation of women has no geographic borders.

What’s not to like in this production? The team did all the right things. The actors were talented and sincere. The overall effect was pleasing and likable—even inspired. But ultimately, it was an inspired failure.

Or shall we call it an ambitious failure, or a failed masterpiece? The paradox between intention and outcome in this production challenges us to rethink our strategies for an artistic dialogue between East and West. We must continue to ponder how cultural icons are appropriated from one culture to another. This dredges up a whole series of issues regarding the cultural background of the critic and the production, the production and the cultural zeitgeist, and ideology and criticism.

In this case, the cultural icon is the geisha, and its timing could not be more appropriate. Geisha websites are exponentially increasing. Geisha photo books are adorning the coffee tables of the cultural bourgeoisie. Certain Western performing artists call themselves “the first American Geisha” or “the first Australian geisha.” And the Japanese have not been immune to this geishamania.

Real geishas like to be called “geiko,” because it emphasizes that they are women who have been cultivated in traditional Japanese performing arts from childhood. Thanks to the massive social and economic dislocations of World War 2, geiko are practically an endangered species; there are now only roughly 2500 professional practitioners. The explanation is simple—the historical, social and economic conditions that gave rise to the geisha culture have been long extinct; aristocratic families no longer have to sell their cultivated daughters to survive in modern Japan.

Nevertheless, the popularity of the geisha mystique in Japan and the rest of the world is burgeoning. Paying about 150 Euros or more, Japanese women of all ages are flocking to Kyoto to indulge in a geisha makeover that includes make-up, kimonos, hairstyles, and photographs. After the photographic session, these transformed females, from housewives to high school girls, may stroll through the back streets of Kyoto. They are followed by zealous Western tourists who want to bring home souvenirs of “traditional” Japan. They aggressively stalk their exotic prey and shower them with bursts of high-speed shots taken with their expensive, zoom-equipped, Japanese-made digital cameras.

We have a multiple masquerade here. The housewife can become a “Geisha Queen for a Day,” and the tourist can become an anthropologist and fashion photographer. Within this comic masquerade, we have the creation of an unintentional street theatre that the late sociologist, Erving Goffman, would surely have appreciated. This practice is innocent enough in its folly and pretension, its ostentation and artificiality, its absurdity and wastefulness. But it also demonstrates a real clash of cultures, expectations, and assumptions. If it were only about comic absurdity, this cultural quirk might not be worth recounting. However, I use it as a parable for our theatre, our sense of who the geisha really is, the state of East West relations, and real questions about identity and gender within Japan itself.

Theatreworks’ Geisha makes a valiant attempt to strip off the mask of the geisha. The fact that it failed, despite the best of intentions and artistic integrity, is a lesson that other, similar productions ignore at their own peril. First, TheatreWorks’ mission is noble, sweeping and idealistic: to mix and blend a number of Asiatic styles without letting any one style or nation predominate theatrically; and to use these Asiatic theatrical forms with as much integrity as possible. For example, if Japanese bunrakumarionettes and Vietnamese water puppets are to be used in one production, they should be integrated and presented in such a way that there is no sense of cultural or nationalistic hegemony.

Even in the United Nations, this honorable principle is difficult to uphold when working with sovereign nations who have their own national interests—and it is impossible to honor during an actual stage production. TheatreWorks’ Geisha moves in and out of a number of different stylistic conventions. They include the onnagata style of Kabuki theatre, minyo singing, and an African-American actress who brilliantly improvises between two artistic traditions; she symbolizes the prototypical multi-cultural geisha. All of these elements result in an intercultural salad but not a unified production.

Why? As idealistic as TheatreWorks’ stated mission may be, the countries of Asia are simply too regionally, ethnically and culturally diverse. It is naïve to think that they can be used in a pure, unadulterated way within any one production. No matter how much we may want to mix, mingle, improvise, and enlarge the artistic range of a production, the marionettes of the Bunraku cannot swim with the water puppets of Viet Nam. You can host a festival of Asiatic performance styles, or you can run a talent show displaying the virtuosity of each Asian country’s performance styles. But a theatrical production needs a unifying style brought about by the director. You cannot have a talented African-American actress seamlessly integrate into the centuries-old cultural traditions of geisha life in the Gion District of Kyoto. Nor can you have a man—even one trained in the Kabuki theatre—convincingly play a contemporary geisha. Of course, Goto can give us a stylized Onnagata version, and Karen Kandel can represent a pluralistic, international geisha. However, if we believe that theatre mirrors life, then there must be a model, a base, a foundation to imitate. If not, a company that aspires to expand the world’s understanding about the unique possibilities of fusing Eastern and Western performance styles can unintentionally distort, misinform, and disorient.

Without a consistent canon of aesthetic principles, even a critic can succumb to this disorientation. One Asian critic, Ng Yi Sheng, wrote a beautifully worded and carefully appreciated review of the production. If one selectively analyzes certain key passages, however, they demonstrate a discouraging lack of cultural insensitivity. For example, he comments on the ridiculousness of the geisha and the practice ofmizuage, in which wealthy patrons bid for a maiko’s virginity (an act outlawed after World War 2):

The world has lately had geishamania, what with Zhang Ziyi doing ethnic drag in Memoirs and all of us making jokes about going to okiyas to bid for each other’s mizuages. The image of the geisha, the height of the Asian exotic, becomes pure kitsch, especially absurd to we who live in an urban Asia where her aesthetic is completely foreign. We dismiss the geisha as ridiculous, assuming that we know what she is. By hiding the voices of the woman herself, Geisha denies us the authority to say we know who she is.” (Ng Yi Sheng, The Flying Inkpot Theatre Review)

Precisely where in Asia is mizuage being laughed at? Where are they being discussed? I have not witnessed this discussion and laughter at any of the parties in many Asian cities that I have had the honor to attend. If the critic does not like this practice, or finds it vaguely amusing or anachronistic, it is a matter of personal preference. However, that sort of opinion does not help his readers, nor does the production help its audiences understand the social, cultural, and social conventions that produced the geisha. It does not help the viewer understand the intrigue and artistry involved in the competition between the rich and the powerful patrons for the beautiful geiko—an intrigue that imparts upon the everyday life of the Gion Geisha artistic status, honor, and a stubborn dignity.

Even worse, these productions can project an aura of truth, a superficial sense of Asiatic style that gives the viewers a false sense of cultural initiation. Such a misguided impression may be worse than benign ignorance. Companies that effectively fuse East and West do it under strong directorial supervision, for specific effects and a sense of style. Ariane Mnouchkine’s “Theatre du Soleil” masterfully draws from a rich repertoire of theatrical styles. American director Julie Taymor brilliantly utilizes aspects of the Indonesian shadow puppet theatre and masked dance, and Japanese bunraku. She later adapted these aspects for the Broadway production of Lion King.

These two directors used techniques from the Theatre of the East to further their artistic visions. Doing so gives an audience a transcendent sense of aesthetics, as the production lures us away from traditional Western forms of representation. TheatreWorks Geisha, for all its noble attempts to portray an authentic geisha, whets our appetite without satisfying it. It stimulates our imagination yet fails to show us the reality. It suggests a feminist statement, yet ultimately contradicts itself.

Thus, I may be permitted to ask a question almost idiotic in its simplicity: Why can’t we have a Japanese woman play a geisha in the Theatreworks production? Why intentionally use an African-American actress or an onnagata portraying Kabuki-esque conventions of femininity? Do not these choices ultimately alienate, distort and ridicule the idea of the geisha? That is particularly ironic for a production that wants to promote and enhance Asian theatre. Is that not the same tone that is absorbed and reflected in the cinematic version of Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha? In that film, the incredibly beautiful Chinese actress Zang Ziyi plays the lead role of Sayuri, who is modelled after one of Japan’s most famous living geisha. Why ask this talented, world-famous Chinese actress to play the role of a geisha who has studied traditional Japanese performing arts all her life?

Watch this clip of the dance sequence in the film Memoirs of a Geisha (2005).

As attractive as the actress is, her pace, rhythm, hairstyle, speech and manner are as far removed from what a geisha is as the Western counterparts in the 1896 production of The Geisha: A Story of a Teahouse.

Of course, you may ask what is so objectionable about open casting and hiring a well-known Chinese actress. Given the sordid history of Broadway, the West End and Hollywood, where white actresses and actors have portrayed Asians in yellowface, shouldn’t contemporary audiences be more sensitive to diversity of Asia? By having a Chinese actress portray what has been called the quintessential symbol of Japanese womanhood, it reinforces the longstanding Western belief that all Asians look and are essentially alike. It also gives the Chinese actress, Zang Zi Yi, the dubious task of trying to learn a lifetime of rigorous artistic and cultural practice within six weeks of rehearsal.

Why not hire a Japanese actress to play this role? Why not cast Mao Inoue, who played the lead in the television drama Hana Ikusa (Flower Battle 2007).

This made-for-television biopic focuses on the life of Japan’s most famous living geisha, Mineko Iwasaki, who retired at the height of her fame at the age of 28. It highlights the challenges and struggles of a young child to first survive and then thrive as she moves from an apprentice maiko to a full-fledgedgeiko. The accompanying footage of the film show that Inoue and her make-up and costume artists do an admirable job of re-enacting the transformation of a girl into a gecko who entertained the rich and famous, including Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles:

In an accompanying excerpt from a television interview, we get a chance to meet the real Mineko Iwasaki (now a traditional dance teacher). She spends a few minutes giving a mini-lesson to a young television interviewer interested in learning the manners of a maiko. The etiquette, the way of movement, the positioning of the hands and fingers, the way of bowing—all are performed with an exacting sense of decorum, style and refinement.

It is the refinement of a performance artist who makes her life her art. We see also the strength, the independence, the communicative skills, the humour, and the unconscious grace in her movement and general demeanour—all minimal requisites to survive in the competitive Gion teahouses of traditional Kyoto.

Geishas usually entertain their clients in a banquet room. A party of 15 to 20 people can easily pay $25,000 USD for food and a few hours of entertainment. The geisha only receives a small fraction of this exorbitant sum. The rest is shared with her sponsor for cost of her dance and music, with her hair- dresser, wigmaker, make-up artist, dresser, and landlord. Some goes to pay for a collection of hand-made kimonos, collectively worth millions of dollars.

The geisha also gives annual performances of traditional dance in Kyoto for a select audience. The performances are restrained, dignified, and stylized. Without knowledge of the traditional story behind the dance, and the meanings of the subtle hand gestures, the average spectator might become bored. It has none of the sensual abandon of the Balinese dance, or the pantomimic agility of traditional Kathakali dance theatre of Kerala, India. The beauty of a geisha dance is in its reserve, its dignity, and its subtlety. If you compare the Japanese traditional dance in this video

with the dance taken from Memoirs of a Geisha above, you will see that the dance in the film reflects little of the restraint and refinement of a real geisha. The professional geisha does not reveal ostentatiously; she conceals. She might allow a patron to see the white of her wrist or the nape of her neck, but little else. Hers is the art of concealment and restraint, softened by a bit of coquettishness—just enough to bring a client back for more, but never enough to completely satisfy his appetite.

A geisha’s communicative style with clients in this fiercely competitive world of women is a form of performance art. It combines the subtle interplay of concealment with the oblique hint of possibility, restraint and mild flirtatiousness. It is a demure art and a saucy conversational skill. TheatreWorks strove mightily to present this image of the geisha to the world, and to reveal the private life of the geisha. It tried to celebrate the exacting discipline and artistic education that a geisha in training must endure. It aspired to reveal the inter-relationships between the geisha and the artistic team that helps her prepare for nightly performances. TheatreWorks’ Geisha plays with the concept and image of the geisha, making use of Japanese performers and dance routines. But for all its good intentions, it never allows the realgeisha to emerge.

Geisha themselves are resisting the appropriation of their lives and their bodies by others, and are speaking out for themselves. Mineko Iwasaki has written a best-selling autobiography, Geisha of Gion. Other memoirs reveal the seamier lives of the lower-ranking geishas, who must depend on more than their art to survive.

We have yet to demystify the Geisha on stage. We have yet to reveal those protective patterns of behaviour that both draw in and create distance. Maybe it is this ultimate ineluctability of representing her “flower and willow” world that oddly links one part of her life to magicians, who are sworn to keep the tricks of their trade a secret. Perhaps the mystification, distortion, and secrecy of the Geisha actually enhance her allure. Come to think of it, misrepresentation may be the best form of presentation.

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