Saturday, January 19, 2013

Review: "Geisha: A Life"

You may have read over at my other blog that I'm swamped with work stuff right now, so it's an interesting coincidence that this book popped up on my radar. "Geisha: A Life" (2002) is a memoir by Mineko Iwasaki that describes her training and career as the most successful modern geisha in Japan. At one point in her life, she worked for five years straight without a single day off, and lately, I've been feeling her pain.

Just to be clear, I'm not reviewing "Memoirs of a Geisha" by Arthur Golden. In fact, Iwasaki sued Golden over his book, because he listed her as one of his primary sources after he promised to protect her identity. She wrote her book as a kind of anti-Golden account, even stating in a few places that she wants to clear up the misconceptions that outsiders have about geisha and the world of the karyukai ("flower and willow world," basically the districts in Japan that house geisha and cater to their clients).

The book itself is a quick read. I've actually read it twice since my busy time started. I found it compelling for the world it described, though the writing itself is a bit dull. As far as memoirs go, it commits the fatal sin of telling-not-showing, using the "This happened to me, and then this happened to me, and then I met this person and we did this together" method. Shirley Jackson she ain't. But Iwasaki is a fascinating person who has led such an interesting life that the dull writing almost doesn't matter. She's giving away intimate details of one of the most secret and misunderstood societies in the world. How can you look away?

I'm biased in favor of this book to begin with because modern Hawaii culture is greatly influenced by our Japanese population, and I recognized a lot of the festivals and art forms described in the book. Furthermore, I played taiko drums for many years under both Japanese and American teachers, so I recognized many of the techniques and attitudes Iwasaki's teachers used on her during her training. Of course I never got within a hundred miles of the kind of talent and mastery that a geisha has over her chosen art form, but it was all familiar enough to make me feel a bit nostalgic.

Final Grade: C. Recommended for those interested in Japanese culture, geisha, and sticking it to the imperialist white man who tramples the dignity of your profession.

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