Writer & Director: Ken Nishikawa
Writers & Producers: Ken Nishikawa & Mike Rogers

Review

Filmmaker and narrator Ken Nishikawa offers us an uncomfortable yet open-hearted inquiry into the life of a woman he has struggled to know. Nishikawa’s subject is his mother, a geisha known as Matsuchiyo. Now 80, Nishikawa’s mom is the oldest practicing geisha in Japan. Yet, 65 years after entering the profession, she and her sister geishas remain enigmatic to the Japanese public. Their lives appear even more impenetrable to 21st-century eyes.

Nishikawa offers a third-person narration of the pivotal events in his mother’s life. He navigates the role of keen observer while disclosing excruciatingly painful episodes, both his mother’s and, parenthetically, his own. Nishikawa answers questions such as:
• What kind of girls became geishas?
• Why did their families let them do it?
• How does one become a geisha?
• How long does it take?
• How much does it cost?
• What must they learn to do?
• Aren’t geishas just high-class prostitutes?
• Why are there so few geishas left?

The filmmaker uses his unique connection to the subject to explore her life in her own words. Matsuchiyo’s frank answers radiate with a finely-honed sense of self and self-deprecating humor. One grasps how deftly Matsuchiyo might anchor a conversation with anybody, yet reveal nothing of herself.

In the film, Matsuchiyo’s answers the question candidly. This is a mother talking with her ichiroh. She wants him to understand. Perhaps she recognizes that this is her last chance to help her first-born son see both sides of mom. She can finally give this gift to her children.

The film assumes the form of reportage, investigative journalism more than family portraiture. The filmmaker offers only the faintest glimpse backstage of the geisha’s life. This is a story told from the perspective of an outsider. Or as witnessed by an audience, watching performers on stage.

One recognizes that the actor is not the character, yet the illusion becomes real. The dancer becomes the dance. A girl who becomes a geisha embodies the illusion of an idealized woman. However, the circumstances that created that ideal, and the social imperative to maintain that ideal, have both passed. Like the samurai, the geisha’s era ended.

It seems odd that Nishikawa narrated his mother’s story in English. Why not use Japanese? As a narrator, Nishikawa is no pro. He uses subtitles only for the portions where Matsuchiyo speaks. One understands the choice to use English narration to make the film more accessible to global audiences. In that case, one might suggest that the filmmaker re-record the narration with a more “professional” actor. Then one realizes that the filmmaker is striving to articulate something much more significant.

It emerges that Nishikawa was never part of his mother’s world. It’s also clear, she intended it that way. Just as she carries two names—the one public, the other secret—the geisha lives two lives. Both lives may bring pleasure and fulfillment, but they can never intersect. Don’t expect a bring-your-kid-to-work day at a geisha inn.

The language of the film embodies the son’s struggle with his mother’s duality. Early in the film, Nishikawa reveals that the word “love” had no counterpart is traditional Japanese. Switching between English and Japanese further emphasizes the narrator’s alienation from his subject. Nishikawa’s English narration becomes a metaphor for the difficulty two individuals have in comprehending each other.

I asked the filmmaker whether it was difficult for him as a child. Meaning, did he find it difficult to carry the burden of secrecy his mother’s profession required. He responded, “She was never home. She worked seven days a week.”

Nishikawa did not have these conversations with his mother as a child. His grandmother raised him and his siblings. He went to private schools, thanks to the patronage of his mother’s clients. Mom worked. He collected these interviews, but kept them in his hard drive for a decade. Nishikawa’s struggle to bring this film to life was not a struggle against external odds. It was a struggle to free his own voice to tell this story.

This film is slightly mistitled. Matsuchiyo – the Life of a Geisha is the public title. But the private title might well be: Matsuchiyo – The Mother I Never Knew.

There are two movies in this film. You would get your money’s worth by watching either version. Taken together, you get far more than you bargained for.

Matsuchiyo – the Life of a Geisha

5 star review

VUE Piccadilly
Fri 5th Oct 17:30
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VUE Piccadilly
Sun 7th Oct 18:00
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About 

Dr. Bennett McClellan has spent his professional career emerged in various aspects of media and entertainment. He spent the first half-dozen years after leaving university writing, directing and producing theatre. After earning his MBA from Harvard Business School, he went into management consulting, focusing on the entertainment industry. He sidelined that professional to earn his MFA in theater, film and television from UCLA. After graduating, he took on executive roles with Hanna-Barbera Productions, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Nickelodeon’s west coast animation studio. He then returned to consulting as a Managing Director for PricewaterhouseCooper’s entertainment practice in Los Angeles. After finishing his PhD in 2010, he shifted to India to help start up a half dozen university programs, including a filmmaking academy, and then migrated to Vietnam.