When American writer Liza Dalby first ventured to Japan in the late ’60s, misconception of Eastern culture was commonplace in the West. So when she returned in the mid ’70s as a Fulbright scholar, she set about tackling one of the most misunderstood elements of Japanese culture: the Geisha. Dalby’s thesis laid the foundation for a subsequent book-titled simply Geisha-in which her unique experiences not only afforded her unparalleled insight in to the Geisha community, but also led to her being heralded in Japan as aoi-me no geisha, or “the blue-eyed geisha.” Her experiences subsequently informed Arthur Golden’s 1997 novel Memoirs of a Geisha, which Steven Spielberg adapted into a popular film.
Next Wednesday, January 21, the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center at UCSB will host a screening of Memoirs of a Geisha and Dalby will be present for a post-screening conversation with John Nathan. She will also host a talk called Kimono and Culture at Campbell Hall on Tuesday, January 20. Brett Leigh Dicks recently spoke to Liz Dalby about her involvement in Memoirs of a Geisha.
What role did you play in the production of the film? I was their onsite Geisha consultant and was there for most of the actual filming.
How did you get involved? It came about through Arthur Golden, who was the author of the novel Memoirs of a Geisha. When the movie rights were bought, they at first said they wanted to hire him as a consultant on the Geisha aspect of it. He told them that he was a novelist and most of what he learned about Geisha he got from my book called Geisha-which is a nonfiction book-and if they wanted to hire a consultant, they should talk to me.
What was your reaction? It made sense. It was an interesting project for me in which I thought I could be of some value as a sort of a reality check for them. Generally, the notion [about the film] is that it’s not really authentic and that the women don’t really look like Geisha and that there were a lot of changes made. As I was there for the filming, I can say that they always asked my opinion and always wanted to know what I would think. They would listen politely and then they would basically go off and do what they wanted.
How did that resonate with you? Initially it was disappointing. I really think that Western societies now know enough about Japan-enough people have been to Japan and enough people have actually seen Geisha-that I thought this was really an opportunity to show the real thing and that people would respond to that. But, in fact, everything was changed to a much more Western aesthetic. And maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised about that.
Given your enduring experiences in Japan, how has the Western perception actually changed? When I first went to Japan in the late ’60s as a high school student, I think at that point Japan was still more exotic to a lot of people. And I think there was probably more misconception. If people had heard the word “Geisha,” they would have perceived them as a high-class Japanese prostitute. And some people still think that. The definition in Merriam Webster’s Dictionary used to say that. Now it says something like “Japanese entertainers.”
Did being onset offer you an insight into the perspective from which the filmmakers were coming? As I said at the beginning, it was disappointing, but I guess after a while being on the set all day long, day in and day out, I started to see it through anthropologist eyes and noticed where they could accept things and where there was a clash between the American ideas of aesthetic beauty and the Japanese ideals. Of course, whenever a clash would happen, they would change it to whatever made sense to Americas. It is an American movie after all.
Liza Dalby will discuss her work following a screening of Memoirs of a Geisha on January 21, at 4 p.m., in the McCune Conference Room at UCSB. She will also give a talk called Kimono and Culture at Campbell Hall on January 20 at 7:30 p.m.