SUNDAY, JANUARY 8, 2006 – Copyright Bloomberg and The International Herald Tribune
Roger Ebert put it well: “I suspect that the more you know about Japan and movies, the less you will enjoy ‘Memoirs of a Geisha.”‘ So began the Chicago Sun Times critic’s review of a film that has created more hard feelings than buzz in Asia.
It’s not the reception that the U.S. director Rob Marshall had anticipated; he thought completing the first big-budget Hollywood production with an all-Asian cast would endear him to Asian audiences.
Yet Japanese have been put off by the casting of Chinese in main roles and have made claims of cultural insensitivity. Chinese are angered that Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li appear in a film that romanticizes Japan during World War II – and that Zhang did a love scene with a Japanese man. Americans, meanwhile, seem indifferent, if tepid box-office receipts are any guide.
The dustup offers insights for Asian governments trying to get along, corporate executives struggling to compete and investors grappling to make sense of it all.
The film at the center of this controversy isn’t a very good one. A highly simplified adaptation of Arthur Golden’s 1997 novel, it is the tale of a poor fisherman’s daughter who is sold into quasi-slavery in Kyoto in 1929 and who, against all odds, eventually becomes the city’s reigning geisha.
The subtleties of Golden’s book, its almost Flaubertian attention to detail and historical context, are lost in the film. It is less about Japan or the stillness, grace and traditions of one of its most rarefied cultural icons, than about exotically dressed women hissing and backstabbing to become Kyoto’s premier geisha and win the men they love.
At first glance, the film seems like a Jane Austen tale with some Charles Dickens tossed in. The end product plays more like “Desperate Housewives” in kimonos.
Even so, “Memoirs of a Geisha” has become an unlikely flash point in relations between China and Japan.
Asia’s economic boom is fraught with risks including power struggles, high energy prices, terrorism, pollution and economic competition from the West. Sadly, the leaders of Japan and China can’t even get in a room to talk without trading recriminations over World War II. Just like Marshall, the film director, these leaders are focusing on theatrics rather than the real story.
Japanese qualms with “Memoirs of a Geisha” miss a bigger point. Yes, a film with so specific a setting should star Japanese. While many seethe that major roles went to Zhang, Gong and the Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh, Marshall also has a point. His casting decisions reflect a dearth of internationally known Japanese actors who can speak English.
After all, Hollywood would not have made the film unless it catered to the lucrative U.S. market, which frowns on subtitles. One reason there are few globally known Japanese actors is that Japan’s large domestic market creates few incentives for film studios and actors to search for audiences or projects abroad.
There is a lesson here for Japan Inc. Japanese are ravenous consumers and, until now, a market of 127 million people seemed big enough. As sales soared in the heady 1980s and stayed reasonably brisk during the recession-plagued 1990s, companies were slow to look abroad.
Take the cellphone industry, an area in which gadget-crazy Japan is hard to beat. Yet you can’t use the vast majority of the phones or their functionality overseas. That insularity is a problem as Japan’s population rapidly ages and competition escalates from South Korea and other countries. The real story behind the “Memoirs of a Geisha” ruckus is that corporate Japan needs to think more globally.
Japan’s economy is recovering, as the 40 percent rally in the Nikkei 225 stock average last year suggests. Yet the nation will have to look to new markets to ensure its prosperity.
Chinese critics are missing the point, too. That actresses from China are in such demand should be reason to celebrate the nation’s prominence in culture, as well as economics. Instead, nationalism is spoiling this moment in the spotlight.
When it comes to Asia’s past, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Japan needs to go further to apologize for its atrocities and its prime minister should stop visiting a Tokyo shrine that honors some convicted war criminals among the war dead.
China is not blameless, either, as its government foments a volatile nationalism that increasingly unnerves neighbors in Asia.
Finally, there is a lesson here for investors. While it may come as a surprise to some people, Chinese, Japanese and South Koreans don’t tend to think that they look alike. Hollywood’s “who would know the difference” mindset in casting films is comparable to how some investors view Asia. Some see it as an undifferentiated collection of nations that are hard to get their arms around.
Asian economies are incredibly diverse. Those who think that China’s rise is a repeat of Japan’s do so at their own peril. The same is true of India’s development versus China’s.
Foreign filmmakers can take artistic license with their casting decisions. They are free to make assumptions about Asians’ appearances. Such oversimplification is not an option for those looking to make money in the region. Respecting the vast differences that exist here may help investors find the Hollywood ending they seek.