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A young girl with beautiful eyes named Chiyo lives in Yoroido, a raggedy little fishing village, in a raggedy little house with her raggedy little family—mom, dying of bone cancer; sister, who is older but not attractive; and dad, who is basically useless. Because dad can't raise two girls alone, he sells them to a local businessman, Mr. Tanaka. Chiyo thinks she is being adopted, but she ends up with a family she never expected—a family of geisha in Kyoto, a long way from Yoroido.
Chiyo lives in an okiya, which is a fancy word for geisha boarding house. The okiya is run by Mother, a stern, often cruel, businesswoman. What's her business? None of your business.
Actually, it's geisha, and since we're reading the Memoirs of a Geisha, we get to hear all about it. Little Chiyo starts as an indentured servant, doing housework and following the orders of the house geisha, Hatsumomo. When she isn't cleaning toilets or being bossed around, she attends geisha school with her young friend, Pumpkin. Here's the geisha school curriculum: dancing, Japanese guitar playing, tea service.
Jealous Hatsumomo is desperate to get Chiyo out of the okiya. She tells Chiyo where her sister has been taken—to a whorehouse across town. Chiyo attempts to escape, but injures herself in the process. She is removed from school and doomed to be a maid in the okiya forever. And she never sees her sister again.
One day, while running errands for Hatsumomo, Chiyo meets a kind businessman: the Chairman. He gives her some spare change and a handkerchief, and she sniffs that square of cotton so much we're surprised it doesn't get stuck up her nose. With each whiff of Chairman's musk, she hopes he will one day adopt her. It doesn't happen, but she gets an adoption of a different kind—Hatsumomo's rival, Mameha, comes to the okiya and adopts Chiyo as her little sister. She also teaches her how to stun men with just a look from her gorgeous eyes.
Mameha doesn't help Chiyo because she has a big heart. She does it because she wants a big purse. Mameha makes a bet with Mother: Chiyo will pay off all her debts, or else Mameha gets nothing. If Chiyo does it, Mother will pay Mameha double. Mother needs a new pair of okobo (those are shoes) so she makes the wager.
Chiyo returns to geisha school, and she excels at all of it. She dances, she plays music, and she pours tea like a pro. She becomes a geisha and gets a new name: Sayuri.
But being a geisha isn't all pouring drinks and dancing. To earn a big paycheck, Mameha auctions Sayuri's mizuage to the highest bidder. She orchestrates a bidding war between Nobu, who is a business partner with Sayuri's beloved Chairman, and Dr. Crab.
What's mizuage? It's a fancy term for "virginity." Dr. Crab wins the bidding way—like eBay for underage girls—and Sayuri grits her teeth through the process. Once that is done, the next step is to find a danna. A danna is a man who purchases exclusive rights to a geisha. Nobu wants to be Sayuri's danna, but Sayuri hopes the Chairman will purchase her.
Throughout all this, Hatsumomo continues smearing Sayuri's reputation. Mameha turns the tables on Hatsumomo, though, spreading rumors that she is mentally unstable until she actually goes crazy and is expelled from the okiya. Sayuri never sees her again.
Neither Nobu nor the Chairman becomes Sayuri's danna. World War II breaks out, and Sayuri takes a general as her danna, so that he may help the okiya during the war. But the war is worse than expected, and the entire geisha district is shut down. Sayuri flees to the estate of Nobu's friend until the war ends and Nobu brings her back to Kyoto.
Nobu wants to be Sayuri's danna, but Sayuri still wants her precious Chairman. She formulates a plan to betray Nobu and get him to hate her. She will sleep with a sleazy Minister and have Nobu catch her. She asks Pumpkin to bring Nobu to the rendezvous point, but Pumpkin brings the Chairman instead. Sayuri is humiliated.
But her plan still works. Nobu hates her, and the Chairman doesn't care that she was with another man, because that's what geisha do. Also, he's glad Nobu is out of the picture, because he wanted Sayuri ever since he first saw her (when she was still a child, so: ew). It was he who asked Mameha to adopt her and mold her into the geisha she is today.
He becomes her danna, she has his illegitimate child, and she asks to move to New York City. The Chairman complies, and Sayuri opens up her own teahouse in the Big Apple and lives happily ever after. Well, she lives, at least, which is more than she can say for anyone else. She closes her memoirs reflecting on all her friends and family whom she has lost over the years, but she retains her hopeful outlook. And her awesome kimono.