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Friday, Nov. 30, 2007

'Hannari — Geisha Modern'

Geisha have never looked so good


Over the years, many people have asked me why I bother to review Japanese films, when so few non-Japanese-speaking foreigners can fully appreciate them.

Hannari — Geisha Modern Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
geisha modern
Dance plays a crucial role in "Hannari — Geisha Modern"

Director: Miyuki Sohara
Running time: 95 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Dec. 2, 2007
[See Japan Times movie listing]

I have stock answers: Many readers of "The Japan Times" are Japanese and many Japanese films today are subtitled and screened at foreign film festivals or released abroad on DVD. Also, a few distributors will screen a subtitled print, often at one theater in Tokyo, sometimes only once a week — but better than nothing. So it's not quite as though I'm writing for my own amusement. Not quite.

Still, a film like Miyuki Sohara's documentary "Hannari — Geisha Modern" makes me realize again how insular and provincial the local industry really is. Most Japanese film producers and distributors, from the big networks on down, have about as much concern for the international market, including the expat community in Japan, as a banquet chef does for the after-dinner mints, with attitudes typically ranging from mild interest to frank indifference.

But for Sohara, a Los Angeles-based announcer-turned-filmmaker, the foreign market is of primary importance, and she has done a thorough job of targeting it. Many of her collaborators, from cinematographer David Whitman to Emmy-winning sound editor Takako Ishikawa, are well-established Hollywood veterans or have impressive bicultural credentials. Her film, about the lives and art of modern-day geisha in Kyoto, is flawlessly subtitled in English or Japanese, depending on the speaker, including dulcet-toned narrator Maxwell Caulfield.

She and her supporters have also done a superb job of promotion in the local foreign community, including a gala pre-release screening on Nov. 23 at Roppongi Hills heavily attended by the diplomatic corps and business-world elite. After years of trying to persuade local distributors that a screening at, say, the Foreign Correspondents Club might be a good PR move, this event was a revelation.

Her subject matter is a major reason why all those ambassadors schlepped to the Mori Arts Center in Academy Hills. Geisha are one of those Japanese cultural phenomena of unending interest to the West, even though most foreigners have only the foggiest idea of what these mysterious butterflies of the night are about. Hollywood films like Rob Marshall's "Memoirs of a Geisha," with its romanticized, outdated and outright fantastic take on the geisha world, only deepen that confusion.

Sohara's film may have other motivations than to counter Rob Marshall's — but that is its effect. More than most outlanders ever could, Sohara has penetrated the notoriously closed geisha world of Kyoto. She filmed in all six of the traditional geisha districts while becoming close to both current and former geisha, including ones who run the okiya — the so-called "geisha houses" where both apprentices and full-fledged geisha have traditionally lived, though today the okiya are more like talent-management offices.

She focuses closely on aesthetics, such as the kimono, the dance, the makeup, with gorgeous lighting and crystal-clear resolution. No wonder electronics-maker JVC is one of her sponsors — her visuals display the full, glorious potential of the latest HDTV technology.

At the same time, Sohara displays the sort of knowledge, insight and sympathy that shows up the shallow and blinkered view of the usual Western geisha pic, fictional or supposedly factual. Her entry into the geisha world was not films or books, but dance, whose forms, beginning with ballet, she had studied since childhood. Geisha dances, however, struck her as special or, as she describes them in the film's program, "truly beautiful, living works of art."

Accordingly, she came to understand geisha not as cultural artifacts to be variously desired or pitied by outsiders, but primarily as talented performers, who undergo a long, rigorous apprenticeship in mastering their art. A dance instructor comments, matter-of-factly, that the dropout rate among would-be geisha is high, with all but the most committed and talented falling by the wayside.

Her interviews with the women who have survived that apprenticeship — from retired veterans to active geisha, including one, Makoto, who has a thriving second career as a jazz singer — illuminate the professionalism, dedication and pride that place Kyoto geisha (or, as they preferred to be called, geiko) on a plane far above the general mizushobai ("water world") run.

That said, there is also a shadow side to this world that Sohara suggests — from the tears of a young apprentice to the fears of various elders that geisha are an endangered species — but chooses not to explore in depth.

This, of course, is the side that has attracted everyone from Kenji Mizoguchi, whose 1936 masterpiece "Gion no Shimai (Sisters of the Gion)" is among the best films about geisha life, to Arthur Golden, whose novel "Memoirs of a Geisha" sold millions of copies, but drew down the wrath of his real-life model, who complained about its distortions and fabrications.

Sohara's avowed aim is to correct popular misconceptions about geisha, Golden's included, but in doing so she has become their advocate, shading dangerously close to a PR agent. "Hannari — Geisha Modern" threatens to turn into a travel agency video, all pretty pictures and eloquent-sounding but empty phrases.

To Sohara's credit, it just about avoids it — she is too thorough, honest and visually talented, perfectly capturing the strange, archaic beauty of geisha in performance. But I wish she had also been a bit more skeptical, pushy and interested in telling stories than befriending her sources. What, I wonder, happened to that crying girl? That might make an interesting film, no? I await "Hannari Part 2."

"Hannari" plays from Dec. 2 to Dec. 14 at Uplink X in Shibuya.


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