Memoirs of a Geisha



Nitta Sayuri tells the story of her life as a geisha. It begins in a poor fishing village in 1929, when, as a nine-year-old girl with unusual blue-gray eyes, she is taken from her home and sold into slavery to a renowned geisha house.

We witness her transformation as she learns the rigorous arts of the geisha: dance and music; wearing kimono, elaborate makeup, and hair; pouring sake to reveal just a touch of inner wrist; competing with a jealous rival for men’s solicitude and the money that goes with it. –

~ Selected excerpt from goodreads

This is one of those older books that I never got around to reading at the time it was published. I remember the hype around the book and the movie that came out based on it, but at the time I hadn’t yet developed a deep interest in Japanese culture and books and so I gave this book and movie a skip.

When I saw this book in the library couple of weeks back, I remembered all the glowing reviews and picked it up. So does this book live up to the hype? Read on to find out.

My Review

I began this book with great excitement, and the first three-quarters of the book did not disappoint me. The book is packed with wonderful descriptive prose and a lot of details about the inner lives of geishas.

The story of the protagonist – Sayuri is very Cinderella-esque in style, a pretty little girl all alone in the world, sold to an okiya and tormented by her okiya mate – Hatsumomo. She meets a man called Chairman who she dreams about and falls in love with. The rest of the story deals with how she overcomes her problems and gets her happy ending.

I liked this book very much for the wonderful writing and the details of Japanese life. I am not an expert, but it seems like a lot of research has gone into this book to make it very authentic sounding. I loved how he described the geisha costumes, hair styles and make-up, the tea drinking ceremonies, the dances, their training, and their general way of life.

It was nice to get an inside look into the lives of these magnificently dressed and fantastically made-up geishas

It was nice to get an inside look into the lives of these magnificently dressed and fantastically made-up geishas

What was a little disappointing was the blandness of a geisha’s life. It seems all Sayuri needed to do was look pretty and serve tea. I was hoping for a little witty conversation, something which demonstrated Sayuri’s intelligence and sharp mind – something she is often commended for, but nothing like that happens. It’s all just silly flirting and I was quite disappointed with the development of Sayuri’s character.

The secondary characters though are pretty interesting and I wish they were a little more developed. Hatsumomo – Sayuri’s nemesis and her protege Pumpkin display shades of grey and I did want to know more about them and what made them tick, and especially what happens to them in the end. Nobu, one of Sayuri’s patrons is also very interesting, and so is Mameha, Sayuri’s elder sister and I wanted to know more about them all, but towards the end all these interesting people vanish into the woodwork and the focus remains on Sayuri and her chairman. And that’s where the book falters.

The story takes a very unrealistic fairy-tale like turn towards the end, and its rushed ending is entirely different from the tone of the rest of the book. I don’t mean that I don’t like a happy ending, but the way this particular happy ending was orchestrated was in quite poor taste, but that’s probably just my opinion.

So, I didn’t like the basic story, and if I read the story in a different setting, I may not have liked it at all. But I loved the wonderful historical setting in wartime Japan, the detailed commentary on the geishas, and some wonderful writing in places. These are what lifted a very ho-hum sort of story into something much more.

Overall, read this book for the lovely and unique historical setting, and the excellent writing. The story as such is a disappointment.

I read this book as part of the Japanese literature challenge that is overseen by Dolce Bellezza every year.

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  • bellezza

    Sadly, I remember the film better than the book. But, I do remember being enchanted with the book, with the details to the geisha’s life, and I was rather surprised that a man wrote it. The narration came across as so believably female to me.

    (Thanks for the link, as well as reviewing it for us.) xo

    • Nishita

      @bellezza:disqus You’re right, I never thought of it, but yeah, the book does feel like it was written by a woman. He got the voice of Sayuri perfectly, and it definitely felt like a memoir.

  • Savvy WorkingGal

    I read this one when it first came out. My FIL had been stationed in Japan at the end of WWII and talked highly of dancing with the Geishas. I enjoyed reading the book and learning more about their lives. Too bad my FIL was no longer living at the time. I would have loved to discuss the book with him. If I recall correctly I think I didn’t enjoy the last few chapters of the book that much either, but the book did make an impression on me.

    • Nishita

      @savvyworkinggal:disqus It’s funny you mention that about your FIL. That part of the book rang a little false to me when I read it. I mean America bombed the hell out of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then here they were after the war dancing around with geishas – it sounded odd, but looks like that’s actually true

      • Savvy WorkingGal

        Interesting, it does sound odd now that you mention it. He talked about this a few times always saying the geisha women were REALLY nice. I always wondered what exactly he meant by REALLY nice. I was happy to learn from the book it was only dancing. He also brought home a kimono as a gift for my MIL. My SIL wore it as a Halloween costume one year and won first prize.

  • I read it soon after it was published and didn’t really think it merited the hype that it got, like you I really didn’t like the way the ending was done either although it was full of some interesting facts.

    • Nishita

      @disqus_mUBrEiIQ5D:disqus I thought the way the ending came about was so yucky, it totally lowered the tone of the rest of the book. I liked the beginning and the middle of the book though, very engrossing.

  • Wanton Ruminating

    I have a geisha book too – I had picked it up after watching the movie and crying copious tears over it. You are right it got boring after the halfway mark, plus I was a bit young for it. And you are reading a ‘fantasy book’ right now – Color me green 🙂

    • Nishita

      @wantonruminating:disqus I found it to drag a lot during and after the WW2 phase. And oh, yes, I started on The Name of the Wind yesterday and so far its awesome 🙂

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