Memoirs of a Geisha: What they got wrong, and what they got right

As with most book adaptations the film is not an exact replica of the novel, but these aren’t the inaccuracies we are looking for today. The novel Memoirs of a Geisha was fictional, although its autobiographical tone confused some readers into believing Sayuri was a real woman, so I will be look at the elements of the film which are accurate/inaccurate, to real events.

What they got wrong:



Although great lengths were taken to make the exquisite scenery convincing to Kyoto in the 1930s-40s, the hairstyles of the geisha in the show were not given the same attention.

  1.  As maiko (apprentice geisha), Pumpkin and Sayuri should have worn the same hairstyle, the Ware-shinobu is the first style a maiko wears. It is more complex, and much rounder at the face than seen in the film. When the girls are seen going to school neither of them wear this hairstyle. When Pumpkin starts to attend the tea houses her hairstyle is close, but not quite.
  2. Most of the female characters actually never wear more than a simple bun, with their hair scraped back instead of being shaped at the sides. These are not geisha hairstyles, and would never be worn by a geiko (full fledged geisha)  like Mameha when working. Hatsumomo comes close to a true geisha style, but her more elaborate hair is normally reserved for specific occasions denoted by seasonal festivals. In fact geisha are ruled by the seasons, and festivals.What kimono they wear, the style of their hair, the ornaments they can wear, the colours they wear, are all dictated by the time of year. This means differences between individuals are very subtle. Something the costume designers might have felt would be lost on a Western audience.

    Sayuri, Mameha and Hatsumomo all have distinctly different hairstyles and make up in this scene, but these differences would be more subtle among real geisha. 


    Three real life, modern day geiko. Notice how they all have the same hairstyle and colour of kimono. Geiko wear more muted tones than maiko and wear less elaborate hair ornaments. Their make-up is far more dramatic than that used in the film.

  3. In one scene we see Hatsumomo clearly wearing a cap for her wig to go on. While this is accurate, as geiko do tend to wear wigs to make things easier, they normally have their hair cut short to facilitate the aforementioned wig, but Hatsumomo clearly has long hair in other scenes.


  4. One final hair related bug bear is the way the hairstyles in the film appear to be taken down and put up on a daily basis. The only character for who this could be true is Hatsumomo, as she wears a wig so she can do her hair every day. A geisha’s hairstyle takes a long time to create, with much construction, padding, and teasing required. The hair must also be combed with wax to preserve it for several days, as the hairstyle is only changed once a week. At this point the style is removed, the hair washed, then styled again. In the film we see Sayuri struggling to sleep on a taka-makura (tall pillow). These were used for the express purpose of preserving the hairstyle for a whole week. A maiko’s hair was constantly under tension, which left most with a bald patch on top of their head by the time they became geiko. No sign of this on Mameha or Hatsumomo.

Make up

The make up is toned down a lot in the film, instead of bright white faces the ladies often only have paled faces, though Mameha seems to wear no make up at all. This just wouldn’t happen when geisha are working and entertaining, its part of being a geisha that you wear it. I imagine this choice was made to make the scenes easier to light. Bright white face paint will reflect any colour that shines on it and potentially could have looked garish and dreadful, so I can understand why they tried to avoid it.

Hatsumomo’s Boyfriend

As we see in the film geisha are not permitted to have boyfriends or really any relationship with a man outside of work. No doubt some geisha tried to push the limits, but they were probably more subtle than inviting the man to her okiya (geisha house). Having been caught I would think Hatsumomo would have been kicked out immediately, but she isn’t. However she is the only source of income for the okiya at the time, which raises the question why she would be the only earner in there. Also geiko often go solo and leave their okiya to set up for themselves, just like Mameha. Hatsumomo presumably has stayed only because she thinks she is going to inherit the okiya from mother.


Hatsumomo is punished harshly when Mother finds out she had a man in the okiya, but she was lucky to be permitted to stay.


Whereas maiko typically rely on their youth and beauty to compensate for their underdeveloped skills, the geiko like Mameha and Hatsumomo are valued for their talents and good company rather than looks. This means that age and good looks are not altogether crucial for a true geisha to be successful. On the other hand learning these skills takes years to master, and at the time in which the film is set maiko would debut as young as ten years old. When parties went on late into the night some young girls would fall asleep and have to be carried home by the male attendants that work with the geisha. Although it shows the girls learning from a young age in the film, it is not until they are adults that they attend any parties.


What They Got Right:


Sayuri’s humble beginnings 

Unfortunately it is true that girls from the countryside were often given, and in fact essentially sold to geisha houses. There would be scouts in the countryside who would offer parents money for their daughters. These families would be poor, struggling to feed themselves and their children, no doubt they thought their daughters would fare better in the cities. In Sayuri’s case her father was a fisherman, his wife had died and he was unwell himself. Knowing he was not long for this world he sought the only way possible he could to provide for his girls. In the film, Sayuri’s sister is sent to a brothel, the okiya did not accept her, which is suggested is due to her character, or because she is less attractive. This isn’t likely to have been an actual consideration as geisha don’t rely solely on being pretty. However in the book it is intimated that she lost her virginity to a boy in the village, and as the girls were checked before they were sold, she was not accepted for this reason, which is more realistic.


Sayuri and her sister Satsu are taken to Kyoto from their coastal village home


The reason the okiyas wanted girls who were virgins was in part so they could make their money back by selling their virginity to the highest bidder. At this time mizuage, the selling of a maiko’s virginity, was common practice, and acted as an initiation from maiko to geiko. Of course this was done as tastefully as possible, as shown in the film it wasn’t a case of auctioning a girl to a crowded room, those who had been invited to make an offer did so discreetly, directly to the okiya.

The Clients

During the period before the second world war banquets were part of doing business in Japan, and nothing said you were in business better than having a phalanx of geisha attend your party. They were expensive, especially the most popular, so there was no better way to show off to your guests. This meant geisha were always rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful such as the Chairman, Nobu, and the Baron. These men might well present their favourites with expensive gifts, especially if they became their danna. Being a danna meant they would pay all a geisha’s expenses, and would expect to spend time in private with that geisha as well as seeing them during banquets and parties.


Nobu presents Sayuri with a gift.

The War

When America joined WWII after Pearl Harbour Japan had to take drastic actions to have any chance of winning. Just as we see in the film the okiya’s were closed, the geisha moved out. Most of them were taken to work in factories in Osaka (this is where Nobu states his and the Chairman’s factory is). Osaka was an industrial city at the time, so it was bombed heavily by the Americans. Nobu tells Sayuri when he visits her after the surrender, his factory is no longer anything but rubble. What he didn’t say was that many of Kyoto’s geisha had died when factories like his were turned to rubble. This is why Sayuri says that she owes Nobu her life when he claims he should have taken better care of her. He had made sure she was taken to the countryside, not the cities, so although life had been hard she was in no real danger.

The American Occupation  

In 1945 Japan was on its knees, the country surrendered to America who then occupied it until 1952. As we see in the film the Kyoto Sayuri returns to is very different to the one she left. A prostitution service was set up to entertain the American soldiers and protect civilian women from rape. We see Pumpkin taking on this new role with apparent relish, perhaps because she had never been a particularly successful geisha. To the American soldiers who didn’t have the cultural understanding to fully appreciate that geisha were artists, combined with the fact that prostitutes were pretending to be geisha because the soldiers didn’t know the difference, the Americans took home a cheapened concept of geisha from which we have terms like geisha girl, which hold connotations of prostitution.


Like so many things in Kyoto, Pumpkin has changed since the American occupation

Overall the film is pretty accurate both visually and in terms of content. The inaccuracies that do exist are likely to have been done for practical reasons instead of ignorance, as the show seems too well researched in other aspects to have made such slip ups by accident.


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