I recently watched two movies with very similar stories and themes. The first was Water, directed by Deepa Mehta, and the second was Memoirs of a Geisha by Rob Marshall. Water is set in India while Memoirs is set in Japan, but both take place in a pre-WW2 time frame and tell the stories of girls brought by circumstance to a community of women. In Water, the young child bride Chuyia is sent to live in a house of widows when her much much much older husband dies after their wedding. Since their culture forbids widows from remarrying, they are sent to live as outcasts with other widows who vary from the typical old widows to others in their middle ages and younger. In particular, one beautiful, young widow named Kalyani befriends Chuyia. In Memoirs, Chiyo (too similar to Chuyia?) is sold at a young age to a geisha house in Kyoto where instead of befriending her, the resident beauty Hatsumomo (played by Gong Li with expressions of cold cruelty that have become her trademark) degrades and mistreats her.
Both movies depict households where women live together without men, but rather than act as a loving sisterhood, they manipulate, abuse, and torment each other. The widow house in Water is ruled by a fat, old, mean-spirited woman who forces the others to do things for her, including Kalyani who is made to prostitute herself to earn money for the house. When Kalyani meets a man and falls in love, not only does she need to hide that relationship for fear of being cast out or punished, she has to decide if she will pursue love and freedom at the cost of everything else or give into a squandered life of abuse. Chiyo’s geisha house is also run by an older, domineering “matriarch” but her interest is mainly in the bottom line and she needs to put up with Hatsumomo’s selfish actions in order to keep the house in order (as a leading geisha she brings in all their income). Chiyo is given a way out when she is taken under the wing of Hatsumomo’s rival, Mameha (played by Michelle Yeoh) and eventually becomes a renowned geisha herself and changes her name to Sayuri. Love is an issue for Sayuri as well, since she had fallen for the much older Chairman who she met as a young girl. Like Hindu widows, Japanese geisha are not permitted to fall in love, so throughout the film she secretly pines for him and finds ways to be close to him.
As I watched both of these stories on screen, I wondered whether these two communities reflected anything of the truth of being a woman. When I think about war movies and their “band of brothers” theme: even though there may be differences between them, in the trenches men bond and form friendships stronger than blood. In contrast, both these movies depicted communities of women full of back-stabbing and bitterness—a desolate sorority. Young girls must learn strength of will by surviving the abuses and manipulations of the older women. When one woman succeeds, others try to claw her down. In the end, the only escape seems to be the love of a man (and if that doesn’t work out, all that’s left is tragedy). Besides the very disturbing theme of men in love with or attracted to young girl children, both these movies bring out how harsh women can be to each other. Perhaps they are meant to be cautionary tales for women to treat each other better, but despite the beautiful scenery and costumes on the outside they portray the female heart with a certain ugliness within.
Memoirs of a Geisha: 3.5 out of 5; Water: 3 out of 5