AFI Movie Club: MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA – American Film Institute
Memoirs of a Geisha Film Still - Ziyi Zhang



MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA is an epic drama that follows a young woman who must navigate the social terrain as a geisha in pre-World War II Japan. The film was produced by AFI Life Achievement Award winner and AFI Board of Trustees member Steven Spielberg – with a score composed by AFI Life Achievement Award recipient John Williams. 

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Movie Trivia About MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA


MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA is based on a 1997 novel of the same name by Arthur Golden. Its screen rights were optioned not long after publication for $1 million. 


After the publication of Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” in Japan, he was sued by one of the women he interviewed for the novel. By naming her in the book’s acknowledgements, Golden violated the traditional geisha code of silence and anonymity. The informant, Mineko Iwasaki, later went on to tell her own story in an autobiography that contradicted Golden’s account. 


Steven Spielberg originally planned to direct MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA as a follow-up to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. However, when his involvement was postponed by other production commitments, Rob Marshall stepped in to direct while Spielberg still maintained a producer credit. 


Although the film takes place in pre-World War II Japan, filming was primarily on soundstages in California. Exteriors were shot on a ranch constructed in Thousand Oaks while interiors were photographed at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City. The city of Kyoto was the only Japanese location used during production. 


While the three main female characters are Japanese in the movie, they were cast with Chinese actresses – Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh – prompting criticism from the Asian community. Due to hostilities between the two countries, China withheld the film from its initial release and Japanese audiences were lukewarm in their reception, leading to average box-office receipts in the country where the film was set.   


MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA cinematographer Dion Beebe had his work cut out for him, depicting delicate lighting of Japanese seasons while filming in Southern California. To achieve the right effect, he hung a massive layer of silk over an entire five-block “town,” and created controls to change the amount of light let in. For this extraordinary feat, he won the Best Cinematography Oscar®. 


MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA marked costume designer Colleen Atwood’s sixth Academy Award® nomination and her second win. She has a staggering total of 12 Oscar® nominations to date. Atwood worked with director Rob Marshall one time prior – on CHICAGO (2002) – which resulted in her first Oscar® win. 


MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA won three of its six Oscar® nominations – Best Art Direction, Cinematography and Costume Design. 

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The movie doesn’t end at the credits: Family-friendly Discussion Questions

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-MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA tackles the controversial subject of geishas – “comfort women” or prostitutes who were sold into human trafficking. Can you empathize with the characters, and do you feel their struggle is relatable to other types of life challenges? Does it make sense that MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA is also a romance, when the women do not possess ownership of their own sexuality? 

-MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA follows the story of young Japanese women who are sold into sexual servitude to support their impoverished families. However, the filmmakers were predominantly white, male and American. Do you think this impacts the authenticity of the film? Why or why not? 

-MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA received objections from critics for casting Chinese actresses (Ziyi Zhang, Gong Lu and Michelle Yeoh) in the roles of Japanese women. Do you believe it is important to represent characters onscreen with performers that share a similar ethnicity or cultural background as the roles they play? Why do you think the filmmakers chose women from China to play Japanese characters? Were you conscious of this issue in representation when you were watching the movie? 

-MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA was hailed for its heightened design and visual appeal, but it was also scrutinized for its representation of Asian culture by Western artists that evokes stereotypes and colonialism. How did you interpret the visual experience of watching MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA? Did you find the imagery seductive and intoxicating, or did it appear cliched? Do you think the filmmakers created an authentic or fantastical image of Japanese society, and how does this impact your impression of the story? 

-How would you rate MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA? 

Watch MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA producers Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher talk about the importance of collaboration in this exclusive AFI Archive video:

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