Monday, May 15, 2006

Liza Dalby - Geisha "Blooper Scooper"

A lovely May evening in Dallas tonight – clear and breezy with a bright full moon. It was the perfect setting for an Arts and Letters Live evening with Liza Dalby and Arthur Golden at the Dallas Museum of Art. Moderated by Sylvia Komatsu of public broadcasting affiliate KERA, it was an interesting conversation on the Memoirs of a Geisha book and film.

Gini and I started it off with some Sapporo Sushi on Oaklawn, spending more than we planned or care to admit. We were rather early and the place was completely empty, but the sushi was thick and fresh, even if our chef was a bit dour. A decent selection of sake, too, sold by the tokkuri instead of the guinomi cup, so don’t let the prices throw you.

After satisfying the sushi urge we headed over to the DMA atrium café, which featured complimentary foody bits, tea and coffee, along with glasses of serviceable wine available for a price. Having called just in time to buy two of the last three tickets for the atrium, we missed out on sitting in the auditorium, but Ms. Dalby’s presentation was engaging enough to make up for the washed-out picture of the closed-circuit television piped into the cheap seat section.

Having already read her books (several times) most of the information was familiar to me. Ms. Dalby is a comfortable and polished speaker and was casually elegant in her silk shibori pantsuit made from a vintage kimono - an unambiguous statement of where she comes down on the kimono-cutting question. Her hair was an angular “mushroom bob” as Gini calls it, one generally favored by Japanese women “of a certain age.” She quite frankly looked fantastic. Her Mac-based presentation was a nutshell synopsis of her book Geisha, giving the audience a quick primer on how to distinguish geisha from courtesan or the common housewife. She attempted once again to put to bed the notion that a geisha’s work is primarily sexual. No, darling, they’re artists and keepers of Japanese cultural tradition. Even so, an audience member just had to ask, “How young are the girls that become maiko (geisha in training) and, do they have SEX???”

Arthur Golden didn’t look anything like I imagined him. His presentation was mostly about his years-long process of developing the story and the shock of suddenly being in the big leagues, with a best selling novel on his hands, hobnobbing with Spielberg and talking movie deals. Apparently he and Liza Dalby have taken the opportunity to do a lot of touring together and they genuinely seem to enjoy each other’s company.

Golden’s tone toward Dalby was respectful and on more than one occasion was quite obviously deferential – she was clearly the heavy hitter of the evening. I have to say I found it amusing and a bit surreal when it suddenly occurred to me that I was watching a woman of Japanese descent dressed in a cream power suit interview a American woman in chic kimono pantsuit who once worked as a geisha, along with an American man who wrote a fictional tale of a female geisha…
An interesting triple juxtaposition!

The event staff handed out index cards, soliciting questions for the our two guests, and I almost took advantage of the anonymity to ask Arthur Golden if he and Iwasaki Mineko had kissed and made up, but I decided it might be too tacky to go there...

The conversation touched only glancingly on the “controversy” over the film’s casting and creative direction. Yes, both are in agreement that the hair was all wrong and some elements of the costume and character motivation weren’t quite right, but Ms. Dalby stated that their suggestions as consultants were always taken seriously by the filmmakers and in some cases, implemented, but that no aspect of the film was merely accidental or unwitting. Their function on the set was that of “blooper-scoopers” as Ms. Dalby put it – and obviously not all of their advice was taken.

In the end, because Memoirs of a Geisha is a Hollywood film created by western men with what we’ll just call “modern sensibilities”, some liberties were invariably taken. Director Rob Marshall and the screenwriters by definition could not have made a “Japanese” film because they are not Japanese men with what today amounts to old fashioned tastes. Still, Ms. Dalby believes the effort was sincere.

Ms. Dalby commented that she thought Sayuri’s debut dance scene was “brilliant” and is familiar with the kabuki plays that inspired it, but I still say the ridiculous back-bend climax was over the top. I’ve become spoiled and prefer the “Japanese” films, I think. When Ms. Komatsu asked Dalby point-blank, “So, what did you think of the book, really?”, Ms. Dalby pointed out that while traditionally most geisha stories are about the tragic sacrifices women must make in the name of social duty, Golden’s story deals with a geisha’s internal life and aspirations and of the relationships with her sisters and aunts and in that respect considers the story rather an innovation in that particular genre. Was that a dodge? I'm not sure...

As we were walking to the Trammell Crow Museum of Asian Art for the reception and book signing, Gini introduced me to Syliva Komatsu and her husband George. Ms. Komatsu attended Harvard at the same time as Arthur Golden, even lived in the same dorm, which was an interesting coincidence. Ms. Komatsu inquired about my tea studies and then graciously introduced us to Ms. Dalby and Mr. Golden. I flashed my copy of Kimono to Ms. Dalby and *predictably* gushed about having read all her books. I was asking about her soon-to-be-released book "East Wind Melts the Ice" on the elevator ride up to the Jade Room when Gini and I were immediately waylayed by museum staff into the line of autograph-seeking fans.

I thought I was the only person there who didn’t have a newly minted copy of MOAG in their hands, but it turned out the girl in line behind me had just purchased Kimono, Geisha AND The Tale of Murasaki at the DMA gift shop after the lecture. Was she going to have them all autographed, I wondered? A twenty minute wait in line with the teeming Arthur Golden multitude finally ended with a docent asking if anyone was waiting for Liza Dalby, so I waltzed right up and once again made her esteemed aquaintance, making a little chit-chat about the custom of ohaguro (teeth blackening). It turns out that during her ohaguro experiments she didn’t actually make the noxious syrup of metal filings and vinegar – it was stage makeup that flakes off the surface of the tooth, instead of staining the enamel like the old recipe would have done.

I don’t ever recall having noticed that Meiji-era granite statue of a tanuki (raccoon) with testicles the size of Texas sitting just outside the museum door. It was holding a baby tanuki, with cute little baby tanuki balls! Just adorable!

All in all – a satisfying and pleasant evening was had by all - except the poor chubby girl with the recalcitrant VW bug in the parking lot of the radio station where I dropped Gini off. We gave the jumper cables a try but I think it was her starter. She was waiting for her parents to drive out from Fort Worth when we left her - I hope she got home OK.


Blogger Taln SG said...

I realize this is long past the posting and the event, but thank you for a nice review of it. Now I wish I had attended.

April 28, 2008 8:35 AM  

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