Most people wear makeup to either enhance, change, or hide their looks. That's the purpose of makeup, whether you're watching makeup tutorials on YouTube to transform yourself or just putting on a little guyliner before going out on a Friday night.
But the geisha in Memoirs of a Geisha take makeup to an entirely different level. A geisha putting on makeup is like Sailor Moon transforming, except it takes hours. When she does it, she assumes a brand new identity. Her makeup is almost impenetrable, like a shield. Who is this woman underneath all that makeup? You may never know.
Geisha are super-secretive about their identities, but this secrecy puts up a wall between them and others.
With this book being Sayuri's memoirs, she always tries to portray herself in a positive light.
An alternate title for Memoirs of a Geisha would be Memoirs of a Maiko or, in English, Memoirs of Being an Apprentice Geisha. The vast majority of the book takes place on Chiyo's journey to becoming a geisha—going to school, taking classes in music and dance, and trying to find her place in the social structure of her town.
It's something we can all relate to…except for the whole "geisha" part.
Although rituals like the mizuage seem unusual or abusive to outside cultures, for Sayuri, it is a normal part of growing up.
All of Sayuri's growth milestones—like first dance or first kiss—come within the context of being a geisha. She has no outside life.
If this book were called Memoirs of a Barista or Memoirs of a Cubicle Worker it wouldn't have been quite the sensation that it was. One of the reasons Memoirs of a Geisha was so popular when it came out is because it opened a window into the super-secret world of the geisha. Geisha weren't on AOL back then (1997 was a simpler time) revealing all their secrets, so for many people, this book served as an introduction to their unique customs.
Geisha keep their rituals and traditions a secret because the mystique is a major part of their image. Without it, they would not be as popular. Geisha would not exist without mystery.
To a Westerner, Japan in the 1930s was an isolated nation with many unusual customs. The geisha are even more isolated, and therefore even stranger.
What do you wear when you go to work or to school? Do you dress for style or for comfort? Some wear jeans and a t-shirt wherever they go. Some people must dress more formal for work, wearing a powersuit and heels—and if you're like Hillary Clinton, you have one in every color of the rainbow.
But if you're a geisha, you don't just roll off your mat and get dressed in the morning. Getting ready is a ritual. A geisha's outfit is 99.9% style and .1% comfort. Kimono look soft and comfy, yes, but they're heavy as heck and hard to walk in. Geisha may get to sleep until noon, but they have to be on at all times.
The geisha's meticulously crafted appearance is like a mask—a full-body mask.
Because a geisha looks perfect on the outside, many men believe she is perfect, but beneath the makeup, she is far from perfect. All the geisha have their flaws.
"A geisha is not technically a prostitute. Here is a useful rule: Anyone who is not technically a prostitute is a prostitute." That's Roger Ebert, summing up the role of a geisha for the film adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha. We couldn't have said it better ourselves, so we won't try.
Geisha act like their job is to play guitar, dance, and pour sake, but these girls aren't selling tea in the teahouse. Here's the real T (i.e., the truth): they're selling sex. Sex sells, even in Kyoto in the 1930s.
A geisha is basically a commodity to be bought and sold for entertainment, and sex factors into her currency.
A geisha's value lies in restricting her sexuality and offering it to only a few men. With too much supply there wouldn't be high demand.
Memoirs of a Geisha spends a lot of time talking about ritual. And there's a good reason for that: the life of a geisha is super-ritualized, with hours spent putting on makeup, doing hair, and wrapping themselves in glorious silk kimono. But we can't forget one important part of a geisha's morning—well, afternoon, since they sleep until noon—routine: checking their horoscopes.
Geisha are a superstitious lot. Maybe because they feel like they got into the profession by a cruel twist of fate, they always want to take a guess as to where fate will lead them. As a result, they put great stock in their almanac.
Whether it's fate or not, Chiyo/Sayuri has no free will in geisha culture. Every major life decision is made for her.
Because she is told from an early age that she is like "water," Chiyo/Sayuri believes she can influence her life's direction, but she cannot fully control it.
When Americans think of Japan and competition, they probably think of sumo wrestling, major league gaming, or those crazy obstacles courses that inspired Wipeout and American Ninja Warrior. They probably don't think of geisha fighting and backstabbing in the okiyas of Gion.
But Memoirs of a Geisha shows us that a geisha house is like a sorority, with a house mother, pledges, and the most important geisha—or the ones who think they're the most important—fighting to be the HGIC: head geisha in charge.
Because all the geisha are in one district and the clients are limited, they must be very competitive in order to get as much business as possible.
Both Hatsumomo and Pumpkin feel like they are competing with Sayuri because they are jealous of her. Hatsumomo is jealous of her looks, and Pumpkin is jealous of her success.
Geisha are masters at singing, dancing, and playing traditional Japanese music with the shamisen guitar or the tzuzumi drum. But we have to wonder if they ever put down the hand drum and pick up the disco ball to bust out a little Sister Sledge.
After all, Memoirs of a Geisha shows us that the hierarchy of geisha society is like a family—with mothers and daughters and sisters. We can picture them all singing, "We are family. We've got all our geisha with us." Okay, maybe not at the teahouse, but they might bust a move at home with their sister geisha.
Geisha do their best to form a family unit because they no longer have contact with their real family. If they had a family, they wouldn't be geisha.
Once Chiyo leaves her family, no character in the book has a real family. All the geisha are without a family, and the men live lives separate from their families.