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Reel Review: Memoirs of a Geisha

Poster of the film "Memoirs of Geisha". It focuses on face of a fair South Asian woman with straight hair, blue eyes, wearing red lipstick.

The Hollywood rendition of the Geisha world, with Edward Said’s Orientalism [1] thrown in, reminds us of a simple fact: things that are unknown to us, will always be misunderstood/mis-interpreted/mistranslated into our language. Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) gives us a bird’s eye view of the Geisha culture and a limited interpretation of ‘sexuality’ [2] (a word that only got coined in the 18th century). Hollywood’s attempt in explaining the concept of ‘Geisha’ turns into a romantic story of a love-struck woman lost in the sex-trafficking world. The movie reduces the Geisha culture into a quest of a woman for a romantic love by mastering the arts of hair-dressing, make-up and manoeuvring her rivals.

This is not a review of the movie, however instead, this article takes a look at the most famous part of the ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ –‘The Snow Dance’ and tries to bring the discussion back around to the practices of the Geisha world. The veteran Geisha Mameha (played by Michelle Yeoh) in the movie describes the Geisha as a ‘moving work of art’ which indeed can be a wonderful entry point into the world of aesthetics. ‘Gei’ in the word Geisha stands for ‘art’ in Japanese, and Geishas devote their lives to mastering Japanese traditional music and dance.

One of the most prominent scenes in the movie is the event called ‘The Snow Dance’ where Sayuri the main protagonist conducts her first live performance in front of a set of strangers, whom she charms and entertains. It is a ceremonial procedure where a woman is introduced to the new world. This dance form can be interpreted in many different ways: many consider it an ascension to the sisterhood with a public dance, and for some it is considered as a transition from a girl to a woman. We can see parallel practises in the Indian subcontinent, in the ceremony of ‘Arangetram’ for example. This marked the ceremonial debut of a devadasi, and has now become the event marking a Bharatnatyam dancer’s first live performance before entering the world of public performances.

Sayuri starts the dance with simple steps, restricting her body movements to an understated performance with a limited set of expressions and physical movements. Her emotions are mostly emphasised through her subdued expressions, limited body movement and yet a powerful graceful presence on the stage. She moves through a range of emotions and takes the audience along with her through the story of an unrequited love.

It is the graceful acts of the Geisha which get recognised by her audience. It is not just the fact that she is dancing but there are movements in the dance where she completely immerses (magn) [4] herself in the performance and she is no longer only an object for the eyes that are watching her. In a public space, where she performs her role of the Geisha, she reaches out to herself and experiences herself and her body part by part. Both mind and body are performing and at some stage in the dance we see her getting into a trance mode and blurring the mind/body distinction. But what we witness in the movie is Hollywood’s perspective of a trance/spiritual experience which on the screen gets translated/reflected as a fit.

Geisha practices (in this specific case – The Snow Dance) are an expansive understanding of sexuality, which desexualizes the physical body in a sense; it shifts the gaze from the genitals and eroticises other parts of the body. It eroticises the acts that may or may not lead to the final act of sex. ‘The Snow Dance’ performs these acts within a choreographed combination of dance and music. Eroticism in a ‘performative’ mode uses aesthetics as a mode of communication and spells out its expressions through dance and music. Geisha performances take minimalism to an extreme level. One does not perform to eroticise an act, the performance itself is the erotic act. It is experienced with one’s senses, not only through the senses of seeing and hearing but also touching, smelling, and feeling [5].

‘The Snow Dance’ can help us develop a language around sexuality focusing on aesthetics. Can dance be seen as a mode of sexuality? Can sexuality be performed on a stage, without an audience;can female sexuality be experienced without a pair of eyes? Can sexuality be about aspects of body that are beyond mind-body dualism? The practices in the Geisha culture try to answer some of these questions and provide us with the aesthetic concept of ‘Iroke [6], roughly translated as eroticism. ‘Iroke’ is expressed in the Geisha’s gestures, movements, and subtle atmosphere created through human contact and intimacy [7]. Iro usually means colour in modern Japanese, but it is popularly used to indicate sex and Ke (or ki) means air or feelings.Combining the two characters together, as in ‘Iroke’, the Japanese dictionary defines the word as sensuality, eroticism or desire,and womanliness [3]. In a dance mode, it gets reflected and performed through different body parts: ‘one strand of hair loose in an otherwise perfect arrangement’; ‘the sidelong glance, exchanged without a word, between a man and a woman’: gestures which get played out in the ‘The Snow Dance’.

The essence of ‘Iroke’ is not as obvious as showing off one’s body or throwing a kiss to the audience: it is an unspoken seductiveness that captures the listeners’ and viewers’ minds through the words and images performed in the dance. The term ‘Iroke’ also implies femininity or, in Judith Butler’s [8] terms, ‘what makes a female a woman’ such as her gracefulness, charm, attractiveness, and beauty—all considered positive qualities for a woman to possess. We see a gender at play which is always performing qualities. The focus is on the performance aspect of the body and sexuality.

The Snow Dance is an opportunity to bring back the experiential element of sexuality and use the language of aesthetics to dwell upon it. Geisha practices can be a way towards understanding sexuality in a much more wholesome manner. The Geishas are ‘performing the gender’ and emphasising the qualities that are considered to be positive for this specific gender. The practise of Geisha does provide us with elements of gender fluidity through elements of aesthetics, and force us to rethink our own limited understanding around sexuality and move away from a paradigm that accepts mind/body divides.


1.Said, E., Orientalism, 1978. Saidwrote that ‘Orientalism’ was a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western Experience. Read more here.

2.Foucault, M., History of Sexuality, 1978. Foucault defined the eastern understanding of sexuality as Ars Erotica.

3.Presentation: Forbidden Sensuality: The Art of the Geisha Yuko Eguchi, University of Pittsburgh

4.Sanskrit word meaning ‘lost in trance’.

5.Japanese historian Julia Adeney Thomas writes that the Japanese tend to think of their mind and body as inseparable, unlike the Christian way of thinking: given the lack of tension between mind and body in Japanese thought, the pleasures of the body were never in themselves considered a particular source of sinfulness, and therefore were never opposed quite so directly to goodness or spirit or society as in societies dominated by Christian thought.

6.Sociologist Yuko Tanaka says that Iroke is an aesthetical concept that developed out of Geisha’s ozashikiculture, Tanaka, Yuko. 1997 “Shunbon, ShungaKenkyu no Rinkai (Critical State of Shunbon and Shunga Research).’In Bungaku (Literature), vol. 10, issue 3: 115-141

7.Dalby, Liza Crihfield. 2000 Little Songs of the Geisha: Traditional Japanese Ko-Uta. Boston: Tuttle Publishing

8.Butler, Judith. 1990 Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Pic source: Columbia Pictures,Sony