The meaning of the title might seem obvious. This is a book written as if it were a memoir by a geisha. But there is a little more to it than that.
One thing we must know is exactly what the word "geisha" means. Thankfully Sayuri defines it for us:
The "gei" of "geisha" means "arts," so the word "geisha" really means "artisan" or "artist." (11.27)
Sayuri is talented in the art of being a geisha, and although her main method of communication is dance, her dances are stories. Sayuri is a skilled storyteller, which is why her story is so compelling, even when she isn't moving her feet to the beat.
There is also a mini-memoir within the book. Hatsumomo finds a journal in Sayuri's room. It's a diary of her life. She tells us, "I wrote only about my thoughts and feelings" (27.9). We think it's a missed opportunity for her to name-drop the book's title. But she tells us, "Sometimes […] I think the things I remember are more real than the things I see" (35.34).
By recalling her life story, she is able to make it real again. The book is important to both Sayuri and her readers. The memoir illuminates the life of a geisha. And for Sayuri, it brings back—if only in her memory—all her friends and family who are dead and gone.
Everyone has felt trapped at some point in their lives, whether it's in a small town or just a really long line at the grocery store. Sayuri's career as a geisha is like the worst trip to the grocery store ever. She keeps changing lines, but none of them ever reach the register.
Until the end of the book. Sayuri spends most of the novel thinking she will never get out of Gion, yet at the end of her Memoirs, she takes two significant plane trips. First though, she must hit rock bottom. In her case, rock bottom hits her when World War II occurs. It affects everyone. Geisha districts close. Mameha becomes a nurse's aid, and Pumpkin works as a prostitute. Things will never be the same.
Sayuri's first plane trip occurs when she goes to a party on an island with Nobu, the Chairman, and a greasy old Minister. Here, Sayuri sleeps with the Minister to stop Nobu from being interested in her. For her whole career, she has been the object of sex at the expense of others. Now she decides to turn the tables, using her sex to hurt someone else. She's still using her sex though. For a geisha, that will never change.
Her second plane trip is her trip to America. She wins the Chairman's heart—well, the part of it that isn't married—and relocates to America. She tells the Chairman she wants to move to America. Sure, she needs his help, but it's the first time in her life Sayuri has ever chosen her place to live, and it's liberating:
I began to feel like a tree whose roots had at last broken into the rich, wet soil deep beneath the surface. (35.2)
She has been told her whole life she was made of water, flowing all over the place, uncontained. But water gives life to a tree, and a sturdier life for Sayuri.
It may be sturdy, but it's still sad. She has a baby that she can't tell us about, because it's the illegitimate son of the Chairman. And everyone she knows is dead. But Sayuri still has her characteristic hope, which is the only thing she ever had to get her through the darkest times in her life. Her last line is
What our struggles and triumphs, however we may suffer them, all too soon they bleed into a wash, just like watery ink on paper. (35.37)
That's inspirational. Or is it? Is this final line hopeful, or is it more like "don't worry because you'll be dead soon too?"
Hey there. Yeah you. Want a geisha?
Well, if you want the best geisha in the world, you have to go to Kyoto, Japan. And travel back in time a few decades, when geisha were at the height of their popularity. That's not to say that they aren't still popular today—people even travel to Kyoto to photograph them. But the height of geisha culture (or the low point, depending on your perspective on geisha) is the time period written about in the book.
Besides cellphones, what changed? World War II, that's what. Although the Second World War gets only a handful of paragraphs in the book, its effects on geisha culture were catastrophic. Sayuri says, "Our country wasn't simply defeated, it was destroyed" (29.9). We see the geisha district of Gion get temporarily shut down, and it can barely recover. After all, geisha are like products. Would you return to a store if it kept going out of business?
Also, the war brings white Americans to Japan, which changes the culture and the methods geisha need to use to attract business. Americans don't understand the culture, and Pumpkin alludes to the parties being different. (We imagine there's more sex and less tea at these shindigs.)
Our setting within a setting is the Nitta okiya, which is basically a boarding house for geisha. It reminds us of a modern-day sorority house. It's run by a house mother, they go to parties, and there are hazing rituals. Girls must first work their way up the ranks, starting as a maid, before they end up a geisha.
Also, like the geisha, the house itself needs to be maintained. Sayuri realizes this after the geisha district is shut down during the war: "The house itself was punishing us for our years of neglect" (30.2). The house, like geisha culture, has fallen into disrepair. It can be fixed, but it will take time, and it will never be the same.
Sayuri would love our tough-o-meter's metaphor of mountain climbing. "This book is as difficult as walking up a mountain barefoot through the snow." "I read this book so fast, it was as if the pages were being turned by a spring breeze." "That book was as difficult to understand as the oldest boulder in Kyoto."
The book is wordy, with Sayuri's numerous metaphors adding to the word count, but her story is colorful, enjoyable, and easy to read. There are a few tricky Japanese words, but most often they are translated to English, and the few that remain in Japanese are easy to pronounce.
Blood is often part of a ritual, whether it's a sacrifice, a woman losing her virginity, or a woman's virginity being sacrificed. In Memoirs, we're told, "Red […] is the color of new beginnings" (24.13). Blood is also red, which is an alluring color and a shade Hatsumomo chooses for her lips.
But we're not concerned with Hatsumomo's lips. We're concerned with Sayuri's. As young Chiyo, her lip is bleeding when she meets Mr. Tanaka. He never says it, but maybe her bloodstained lip reminds him of the lipstick a geisha wears…because he sets her on the path to geisha-hood right then and there.
Sayuri loses her virginity to Dr. Crab, and we talk about the creepy thing he does with her blood in his "Character" page. But once again, for good measure: he keeps it. He soaks it up in a rag, and puts it in a little jar. No, we're not making this up. Yes, it's creepy af. And yes, it's evidence that blood means a whole lot in Memoirs of A Geisha—it's evidence of virginity, and it's evidence that virginity is super-prized in the geisha community and Japanese culture during the 1930s.
But there's another exchange that seems more like a blood debt. Nobu gives Sayuri a ruby to pay her debts, and she describes the ruby as "a giant drop of blood sparking in the sunlight" (23.26).
With all the blood in this book, that isn't a description to be taken lightly. And when Mother takes it, the ruby is "swallow[ed] up in her hand" (23.46). At this point, Mother thinks she is bargaining for Sayuri's virginity, so it's like she's exchanging a blood-red jewel for blood of another sort.
Later, Nobu gives Sayuri a chunk of concrete, promising to later exchange it for a jewel and become her danna. But she prevents that from happening. Red is the color of passion, and what little passion was in their relationship is gone, leaving it a lumpy gray stone.
A white flag means to surrender, and when the Chairman gives Chiyo his white hanky, she surrenders her heart to him. She keeps it in her kimono, she rubs it for comfort, and she lies down and sniffs it to remind herself of her Chairman. It becomes an idol of sorts, and she worships it, because she thinks the Chairman is her savior.
Sayuri takes the hanky everywhere—to teahouses, on trips, and probably to the bathroom. It's her way of keeping the Chairman with her, even when she thinks that he is an impossible goal. We're not sure whatever happens to his hanky, though. After he chooses her, she never mentions it again. She doesn't need his scent, because she has the real thing.
We want to include kimono as an image because…well, they're super pretty. If you need only one reason to watch the film version of the book, it's to see the gorgeous kimono. They're so amazing we'd consider trading in our usual cozy uniform of sweat pants and a hoodie for the discomfort of wearing yards and yards of intricately arranged silk.
Just check it out: Hatsumomo's kimono, a water-blue garment with silver fish and gold trim, is "lovelier than anything [Chiyo had] ever imagined" (3.56).
But kimono aren't entirely for visual pleasure. One bit of historical trivia that you may not know is that kimono are incredibly heavy. You'd think something as thin as silk would be light, but geisha must build up their strength to be able to wear them. Plus, the obi, which is the sash around the kimono, adds to the weight.
The main significance of the kimono, though, is as a status symbol. Chiyo starts off wearing rags, and as she climbs the ranks to become one of the most famous geisha, her kimono get more and more beautiful. They also serve to differentiate ranks within the okiya.
The apprentice geisha generally wears more colorful garments because, to put it bluntly, she is being shown off to men for sexual purposes, like a peacock showing off to a mate. One businessman even tells Sayuri, "I believe the apprentice geisha of Gion is perhaps the most brilliantly colored primate of all" (14.15). If geisha are animals, the kimono is their pelt.
The book opens with a translator's note, not by Arthur Golden, but by a fictional translator who isn't actually a character. Like a geisha attempting to fool a client, the book masquerades as a non-fiction memoir written by a real geisha. But also like a geisha, whose makeup is so thick it's clearly makeup, we all know the book is fiction. Arthur Golden's name is on the cover.
However, it's easy to immerse yourself in the book through Sayuri's first-person account. Also, it being a "memoir," she often attempts to portray herself in the most positive light possible. That's also another geisha trait—manipulating things so that she always looks good.
In a first-person book like this, there is always the danger of having an unreliable narrator. Sayuri may be deceptive, but we don't think she is a liar. Plus, we see in one scene that she keeps a diary, so her facts as she presents them are likely accurate.