*Spoiler Warning* Memoirs of a Geisha is a chick flick. *Spoiler Over*
There, now we know the plot, and we can get over our machismo long enough to analyze this very beautiful movie and in particular this very artful suit-up scene.
There are traditionally two types of heroes in a story, the strong hero and the clever hero. The strong hero fights with strength and surpasses his enemies with force of will often using brute strength to overcome the machinations of the antagonist, while the clever hero is ingenious and uses planning and guile to skirt past the strong defenses of his enemy. Two different methods, both trying to give opposing versions of the same story. These are the templates for most of mythology, if you follow Campbell, and for thousands of years of story-telling. These heroes and villains throughout time can be boiled down to one of these archetypes; Samson, Goliath, Perseus, Achilles, Odysseus, Hercules, Anansi, Aladdin and hundreds more.
It is often when elements of the two are carefully mixed together that creates a truly magnificent modern hero, and while modern heroes are often more one than the other, modern storytelling and audiences no longer allows one dimensional characters as our protagonists and antagonists. The modern hero must learn to overcome not only their weaknesses, but also their strengths. And film often utilizes one of two scenes to show this growth in a character, the suit-up scene and the training montage, which have been molded to fit any number of characters in a wide variety of roles; and these are directorial decisions and not often storytelling ones. There is no hard and fast rule about what type of hero has a suit-up scene or a training montage, or any other tricks from the director’s bag to aid in quick representation of a complex event.
In walks Sayuri. This scene marks the beginning of Sayuri’s journey as a heroine. Her previous life has been destroyed to such a point that now she has no choice but to integrate into the underworld (Campbell’s term but very appropriate in this context.) This scene shows that the gates to this life (once closed by fighting so hard to regain what was lost of her previous life) have finally been opened by the kind and knowledgeable Mameha, who is filling the role of tutor and trainer for Sayuri’s advancement.
This scene is in fact both – to put quick dirty labels on things – a suit-up scene and a training montage intermingled together. We begin with scenes of Mameha’s teachings, in temporal order, interspersed with Sayuri getting dressed for the night of her debut, both culminating in the final presentation of Sayuri as a maiko (apprentice Geisha). This intermingling is very effective at showing both sides of this protagonist as well as giving clear symbolic change.
The more traditional suit-up scene shows artifices of the hero (objects, tools, weapons) as he gathers them together. Here the artifices of the geisha is the geisha herself – a fact pointed out in the movie itself; that “geisha” means artist, the goal to become a living work of art. Her tools and weapons are the tricks she learns, the music and dancing and fan-work and coy gestures, as well as the appearance of beauty in her dress and make-up. It is only by combining the two together that we achieve the full effect of this symbolic change in the character. Dressing as a geisha does not make Sayuri one, and all the tricks and skills do not represent the artful life without the proper presentation.
So here we have a careful blend of the two types of hero; learning to be coy and demure and graceful and witty, to play music and dance and catch the eye of any man (all these also serving as the tools of our heroine,) meanwhile showing will and determination by withstanding the tortures of her physical transformation; walking in painful shoes, excruciating hair treatments, and sleeping in awkward arrangements. The scenes are beautifully shot and artfully paced, so while not a traditional suit-up scene – in the mode of Lt. Ripley at the end of Aliens – it serves all of the purposes and more in spectacular fashion.
Last note of interest; there are two suit-up scenes in this movie. There is this first grandly presented scene where Sayuri first becomes the character that she is destined to be, and there is an additional scene at the end when Sayuri has to return to being a geisha – even though that life had in fact destroyed all her hopes and dreams. Being a geisha has eventually separated her from what she desired most (the love of the chairman) and now must return to the life as her only means of reuniting with him. This final suit-up scene (in function though not form) is sparse and quick. There is no focus on any object and indeed the final product of her re-transformation is purposefully ignored. Where in this first scene she ends with looking proudly into the mirror at what she has become, in the second she only looks but briefly, and the mirror is shot so as to prevent us from seeing the expression in her face at all. Showing that she is not proud and she is yet again moving away from what she truly wants and can barely look at herself.
Oh, I mean… chick flick.