The independent news organization of Duke University

Memoirs of an (Americanized) geisha

Are my brown eyes not good enough? I can't look at the movie poster for the upcoming Dec. 23 release of Memoirs of a Geisha without resentment. Finally, when I am given the opportunity to see an American film in which the actors and actresses of my race are presented in roles other than martial arts experts or bookworms, I am left disappointed once again, and this time, before the movie is even released. My main complaint is with the movie poster itself.

The poster is simple in concept but dramatic in effect. An up-close headshot of the leading actress, Ziyi Zhang, is stunning but not because of her traditional geisha make-up of white powder and red lipstick. Instead, what is most striking of this portrait is her blue eyes.

That's right, her blue eyes.

Once again I am reminded by American pop culture that my eyes, and the eyes of all other Japanese people, are unattractive shades of brown and grey. While I recognize that a movie based on the bestselling (in America, not Japan) novel of Arthur Golden does not have to follow Golden's exact storyline, the decision to market the movie with a poster that enhances Sayuri's, the main character's, grey-blue eye color, as depicted in the novel, to a baby blue color is downright insulting.

The poster brings to the forefront what American readers missed when they applauded Golden's novel as a personal look into the geisha world, allowing Golden (and now director Rob Marshall) to profit from their blatant distorting of Japanese culture. The fact that Golden chose Sayuri's mark of beauty to be her unusual grey-blue eyes is questionable to begin with, but the poster makes everything clear. There can be no other explanation that the blueness was enhanced for the movie poster other than to Westernize Zhang's image, so that she is left to be marketed as a woman that is even more mysterious and strange.

I am offended that a movie not based on Western culture has to be another victim of it.

Of course, this detail seems so trivial to the majority, the individuals who aren't represented in this movie (welcome to my world), but I frankly don't need any more American men marketing East Asian women as exotic. It's bad enough that I've lost count of how many Duke men have described me as such.

The poster is only a visible representation of the other inherent problems with the movie itself, like Marshall's decision to have three non-Japanese actresses play the leading geishas, including Sayuri, even though former director Steven Spielberg had cast a Japanese actress for Zhang's part when he was originally slotted to direct the film. While Ziyi Zhang is undeniably China's most popular actress, I question whether Zhang's ability to act as a geisha was far superior to all the Japanese actresses who auditioned. Or, if Marshall assumed (like the rest of Hollywood) that no difference exists between Japanese and Chinese people.

We all look same, no?

Wrong. You see, while Memoirs of a Geisha is already stirring up Oscar conversations of a "Best Picture" nomination on this side of the Pacific, Japanese and Chinese web forums and blogs are exploding with rage, ranging from some Japanese people infuriated that they are misrepresented once again in an American film (Lost in Translation, anyone?) to some Chinese people decrying Zhang as a traitor. Aside from the fact that Zhang doesn't look Japanese and speaks English differently as a Chinese actress than a native Japanese actress due to intonation differences between the two languages, Marshall ignores the historical context of the geisha as it relates to the current woes of the ever-worsening China-Japan relationship.

While I am not as angered by the choice of Zhang for Sayuri as some of my Japanese friends, I hate the poster. I am sick and tired of seeing movie after movie of East Asian cultures be grossly distorted under the name of "art," rather than "insensitiveness" or "bigotry." And frankly, Marshall's desire to create mystery or uniqueness for the movie with a poster of a baby blue-eyed geisha leaves me with no mystery to figure out.

I will not be seeing it.

Miho Kubagawa is a Trinity junior. She would like to thank everyone for reading her column this semester.



Share and discuss “Memoirs of an (Americanized) geisha” on social media.