Stephen K. Hayes, the legendary martial artist who brought the once-secretive art of the Ninja to the West, once took a group of eager American students on a trip to Japan. Early one morning, dressed in traditional Ninja regalia (black uniforms, black hoods, etc.), they went to train in a public park, and found themselves enduring the polite snickers of the locals. It was later explained to them that for a bunch of Yanks to show up dressed as Ninjas in a public place to practice would be the equivalent of a group of Japanese tourists turning up in Central Park dressed up as Pilgrims and re-enacting Thanksgiving. This little story illustrates a still largely pervasive Western view of the Japanese: that even now, the majority live according to ancient customs. While partially true, operating exclusively from this mindset causes misconceptions and stereotypes to endure. Certainly the mystique of the Geisha falls within the many common fallacies that Westerners, in a sense, hold dear.
Historically speaking, Geisha (pronounced “geesha”) are trained in seclusion from an early age, although modern Geisha usually have a high school or college education before they begin their 5-year apprenticeship. In both Japan and the West, confusion remains about the exact nature of the profession; for many years in Western popular culture, Geisha have been frequently depicted as expensive prostitutes. They are in fact entertainers, adept in reciting verse, singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, and pouring tea to name but a few of their many skills. Geisha certainly flirt and engage in demure banter with men, however, clients know (or should know) that nothing more can be expected. The allure of the Geisha is partially based in the illusion of the unattainable. So let’s clear it up once and for all: Geisha do not engage in paid sex with clients. But interestingly, all Geisha must be single and should one choose to marry, she must retire from the profession.
In the 1920s there were over 80,000 Geisha in Japan, but today the number is estimated to be 1,000 to 2,000. Last week a young Geisha, who goes by the professional moniker Komomo, gave a performance at the cozy Santa Monica Playhouse on the Third Street Promenade. In attendance were Japanese, Japanese-Americans, and a few of us gaijin. Komomo is the subject of a recent documentary film called Hannari – Geisha Modern and a companion book of stunning photographs that depict her training and transformation into a full-fledged Geisha. American-based Japanese producer/director Miyuki Sohara gained unprecedented access to Geisha society In Kyoto, called the Flower and Willow World, where Komomo trained. The film has screened to international acclaim and is now playing at the Laemmle in Santa Monica, having premiered a year ago in Beverly Hills, thus making its return to SoCal but the latest stop on Team Komomo’s charming road show.
An accomplished actress herself, director Sohara’s initial motivation to make the documentary was the film Memoirs of a Geisha, which, based on her extensive experience in traditional Japanese performance, she felt grossly misrepresented the world of the Geisha. But like most Japanese, she had only a cursory understanding of the real facts, so she set out to find the truth.
Once the audience settled in, shots of many delicious varieties of sake and plum wine were served, and needless to say, soon everyone was in a jovial, receptive mood. Komomo then took the stage in traditional Geisha costume and white-face make-up. Her appearance was striking, and her demeanor confident yet somehow retiring, the perfect balance Geishas strive to achieve. For the next hour or so, Komomo danced, sang, played traditional Japanese musical instruments, and, with volunteers from the audience, played a simple drinking game that started tentatively and grew progressively more raucous as she won round after round, meaning, of course, that her opponents had to drink. In fact, Komomo was defeated only once by a good-natured but competitive young man who was clearly playing to win. The formal presentation wrapped up with a screening of film’s trailer and a few short clips.
The entire afternoon was really a celebration of Japanese culture, as others performed in Japanese after Komomo, and the sake continued to flow as those in attendance feasted on sushi and sashimi. True to form, Komomo herself remained something of an enigma as she posed for photographs and chatted with audience members. When asked what drew her to the world of the Geisha, her answer was stunningly simple: from childhood she loved kimonos (traditional Japanese robes) and wished to spend her life wearing one. If there was indeed a deeper motivation for Komomo’s desire to take up this most exclusive of professions, she was not letting on, leaving the world to wonder what lies beneath the robes, the make-up, and the artfulness she so effortlessly displayed. How very Japanese. How very Geisha.
For more information visit geishamodern.com