Memoirs of a Geisha inflames Chinese-Japanese relations

Of course, inflaming Sino-Japanese relations isn’t that hard a thing to do, but this does seem kind of silly.

The makers of “Memoirs of a Geisha” expected to be lauded for creating the first big-budget Hollywood movie with Asian actors in every leading role. Instead, they find themselves defending casting decisions that have inflamed historical tensions between Japan and China.

The English-language film is set in Japan and adapted from the American novel. It stars Chinese actresses Ziyi Zhang and Gong Li, and Chinese-Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh. They join several Japanese performers, including Ken Watanabe.

For months, the Internet has been filled with vitriolic debate over cultural insensitivity, and Zhang has been denounced in China for her starring role. The arguments boil down to this: A movie about Japanese culture should have a Japanese actress in the lead.

The filmmakers, however, thought that would be shortsighted and discriminatory. Producers Douglas Wick (“Gladiator”) and Lucy Fisher, and director Rob Marshall (“Chicago”), say the casting was an exhaustive, meticulous process that considered acting ability, star power and physical traits.

“Some Japanese actresses didn’t even want to audition, because they couldn’t speak English and were too afraid to try to take it on,” Fisher said.

Marshall said that when Zhang auditioned, she immediately established that she deserved to be the star: “Your hope as a director is that someone comes in and claims the role, says ‘This is mine.'”

The debate is somewhat perplexing considering that actors have been playing characters of different nationalities throughout the history of film.

“When you saw ‘Zorba the Greek,’ and you saw Anthony Quinn play Zorba, was that odd to you because he was Irish and Mexican?” Marshall said. ‘Or when you saw ‘Dr. Zhivago,’ and you saw
Omar Sharif, who’s Egyptian-born, play a Russian, was that something that threw you?”

Yes, very silly indeed. This is theater, with actors and actrssses. Thei own ethnicity is (or should be) irrelevant to the part they play. You don’t need to be ethnic Japanese or Chinese or Jew to play one in a film. Zhang Ziyi shouldn’t be criticized for playing a Japanese if she looks the part and does a good job acting.

But then, when it comes to Japan, logic and common sense are chucked out the window, and raw festering emotions take over. And it looks ever so stupid.

The Discussion: 31 Comments

Yeah, I guess these guys’ll get off on whatever they can. I mean, it’s not like they can criticize anything here in China, so maybe let’s just let out our aggressions on a Chinese actress for choosing to play a Japanese actress in a hit movie rather than a big-time Chi-comm hero on CCTV.
Personally, I’ve always been unhappy with the fact that the voice on “knight rider” was a person’s voice fed thru filters rather than that of a real talking car. I just haven’t been able to get over that.

December 8, 2005 @ 3:51 am | Comment

Very silly – but as you say, we are talking about people who will start a riot when they see a Toyota advert in which a Chinese guy goes down on his knees to beg for such a nice car. I don’t hold with the Anthony Quinn comparisons though. Some of the old Hollywood movies were terrible in getting westerners to portray Asians. It’s like saying Christopher Lee played Fu Manchu and nobody made a fuss. I’m surprised they didn’t get Bert Kwok in! (He’s an American Chinese who played a lot of Japanese characters in 60s movies like James Bond)

December 8, 2005 @ 4:06 am | Comment

“Some Japanese actresses didn’t even want to audition, because they couldn’t speak English and were too afraid to try to take it on”

No, more likely the better Japanese actresses didn’t want to audition because iit’s full of nonsense that reinforces inaccurate Western-held stereotypes about geisha. At least if the book is any guide to the movie.

December 8, 2005 @ 4:23 am | Comment

I’ve read that Liza Dalby, author of Geisha, was a technical advisor for Memoirs of a Geisha, but left when the producers stopped paying any attention to her advice.

For what it’s worth, Burt Kwouk is actually from England.

December 8, 2005 @ 4:37 am | Comment

Quit your whining. There have been other
actress’s to play parts that didn’t fit their
cultural background. The British get their
knickers in a twist when some American
actress plays a Brit. and vice versa.

December 8, 2005 @ 5:36 am | Comment

I’ve never heard of Brits getting upset over Americans playing British characters. It’s not my specialist subject but Britain and the U.S. appear to be almost one country when it comes to acting and films as the mix of Brit actors in U.S. productions and vica versa is considerable.

Still, Brits do get upset when the U.S. film industry alters history to make it all-American. Like the cracking of the German Enigma code etc.

Re the post, Richard sums it up in the last para. When it comes to Japan, Chinese common sense gets thrown out of the window.

December 8, 2005 @ 6:19 am | Comment

Silly for the Chinese to get upset about it. If I was Japanese, though, I’d be pretty pissed. There are a ton of great Japanese actresses who could use a Hollywood-sized paycheck.

December 8, 2005 @ 7:11 am | Comment

Zhang ZiYi is a box office draw in the US, while there are basically no Japanese actresses that are well-known in the US. End of story.

December 8, 2005 @ 8:02 am | Comment

“Zhang ZiYi is a box office draw in the US, while there are basically no Japanese actresses that are well-known in the US. End of story.”

Translation – American movie-goers rate the quality of a film according to if they know who’s in it at all.

Sure, that’s a great indication……….

December 8, 2005 @ 11:52 am | Comment


I watched an old Chinese movie about the Korean War. The Americans were all played by Chinese men with fake noses glued on. I’m not kidding!

December 8, 2005 @ 12:02 pm | Comment

Perhaps I’m a little dim and don’t understand the concept of acting but I understand it to be someone who is playing a role that is different from their real life persona. So a Chinese actress playing a Geisha is in line with this concept.


December 8, 2005 @ 1:28 pm | Comment

meanwhile, the expats in japan are also getting upset…

December 8, 2005 @ 5:38 pm | Comment

I watched an old Chinese movie about the Korean War. The Americans were all played by Chinese men with fake noses glued on. I’m not kidding!

I’ve read that in North Korean war films the Americans are played by Korean actors wearing sunglasses and blonde wigs (together with the very occasional defector from the imperialist enemy).

December 8, 2005 @ 5:54 pm | Comment

but I think there’s a difference when talking about Asians, especially someone who isn’t Asian American, taking the part. As is said in the post, if she “looks the part.” But Zhang looks nothing like a Japanese, it just goes to the idea that many Americans have as to all Asians looking the same. Whether right or wrong, Chinese actresses know the sensitivity their actions may create and simply feel that their fame will allow them to flaunt it (Zhao Wei in the Japanese flag outfit a few years ago is another example).

December 8, 2005 @ 6:00 pm | Comment

This is just silly.

To the Japanese – “Memoirs of a Geisha” is piece of fiction written by a non-Japanese American. Maybe if the movie were about The Tale of Genji or even a modern classic like Norwegian Wood your complaints about authenticity would have credibility. As it stands, however, the book it’s based upon is less Japanese than it is Dickens by way of the brothers Grimm (Cinderella, anyone?)

To the Chinese – shouldn’t you be happy that Chinese actresses are getting more representation in Tinseltown nowadays?

December 8, 2005 @ 7:38 pm | Comment

All this reminds me of my wife’s constant harping during the “Joy Luck Club”. Hunh, she’s not Chinese, she look’s more (Japanese, Korean, etc.) Hey, absolutely great movie anyway. (And funny, she didn’t complain about Vietnamese-American kids playing Chinese-Americans). On a more positive note, I was told that the old Korean War movie “Pork Chop hill” included a Jpanese-American playing Gregory Peck’s XO because the technical advisor to the film was the author himself, who insisted that since his XO had been a Nisei, the film should include a Nisei actor in that part.

December 8, 2005 @ 7:52 pm | Comment

Rancor towards Zizi might also be stem from the fact that she’s got a less-than-stellar rep among the mainland Chinese. Many feel that she’s been undeserving of her success and have accused her of being an opportunistic, goldidgging bitch with mediocre talent who slept her way to the top, etc etc. So that she would play a geisha (gasp!) is just adding fuel to the fire.

December 8, 2005 @ 7:53 pm | Comment

>>Translation – American movie-goers rate the quality of a film according to if they know who’s in it at all.

Is that specifically an American phenomenon? I know Chinese and Europeans couldn’t care less if a ‘star’ is in a movie, right? haaa. joke.

In any case, who said anything about rating the quality of a film? All I said is that ZZY is a box office draw, which equals publicity and motivates people to go see the movie, which obviously was a factor in her selection for the role. The audience (yes, even Americans! gasp!) still might hate the movie when they actually see it and give it a poor “quality rating.”

December 8, 2005 @ 8:27 pm | Comment

I hope he doesn’t mind, but I’m going to use the quote from ESWN that I used in my post on this silly issue.

Source Quote:
She is not being screwed by just one Japanese person, for she is being screwed by every Japanese person! She is not the only person to be screwed by the Japanese people, for every Chinese person is being screwed by the Japanese people! She let shame fall on the Chinese people! How could such a person deserve to be a Chinese?


After reading those words, I became super-dispirited. How did all the Chinese people get screwed by all the Japanese people? If you think that Zhang Ziyi’s butt can represent your face, then I do not object to that. But could you please not bring the entire Chinese population into this!

December 8, 2005 @ 11:08 pm | Comment

Strange that no one is bringing Gong Li in the discussion, as in my opinion she even looks less Japanese than Zhang Ziyi.

But let’s get back to the original question: why are there two Chinese actresses starring in an American movie on something so typically Japanese as the Geisha métier (oh my goodness, globalisation doesn’t make it any easier, now does it ?). I’m not so sure about Ziyi as I don’t know a lot about her credentials as an actress, but for Gong Li I definitely know it is because she teamed up with some of the most remarkable people China has produced in the past decades, the “Fifth Generation”directors and for her noticeably Chen Kaige and (ex-husband) Zhang Yimou. These guys have been turning out movies made in often dire circumstances at an enormous speed, of very high quality, very different of what had been done in China before, so the West had to notice them. And in a good number of those movies you had Gong Li, embodying to perfection that new estheticism found by those directors. The fact that she is not acclaimed by domestic audiences may be proof to the fact that she together with Chen and Zhang (and the others, like Tian Zhuangzuang) have been producing something entirely new. If anything really sparkles at the Chinese skies, except for it’s lights at the Bund, I would say it’s it circle of directors, for they are very courageous and very talented people

So what about Japan. Either it has fallen out of grace in the West or there is really not much going on there anymore. The last one to attract “large” Western audiences in my view must have been Shohei Imamura and there definitely is not one actress standing out in the way Gong Li has dominated the Chinese scene in the past ten or more years.

So where do you think America turns to find it’s actresses for a movie on geisha’s ? Where the box-office is pointing the finger to and in this case, that is not unjustly China.

December 9, 2005 @ 2:24 pm | Comment

Agree. So perhaps the real insult is not that the casting director has a “all look the same” concept of Asians, or that Chinese actresses in a movie about Japan is spitting in the face of authenticity, or even that Ziyi and Gong Li and somehow “losing the face of all Chinese” by playing geishas, but rather that these talented people – who’ve starred in some of the most exhilerating, innovative, and honest films to come out of East Asia in recent decades (not just Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, but also Wong Kar-wai and Ang Lee, etc) – have chosen to attach themselves to this trite Hollywood-with-Orientalia-frills piece that reaffirms comforting cliches about the East than destroys them.

Gong Li, who certainly knows her way around complex, moving female roles, is going to be reduced to the shrewish dragon lady Hatsumomo . And Ziyi is going to be the Little Dorrit-turned-Cinderella-with-an-obi who angsts about a creepily middge-aged love between talking in hackneyed nature metaphors.

(Can you tell I’ve got a problem with Memoirs of a Geisha?)

P.S. I can’t think of any reknowned Japanese actresses currently popular in the West, but I can think of one director/actor – Beat Takeshi. And Korean cinema has been experiencing a renaissance of sorts.

December 9, 2005 @ 3:00 pm | Comment


I haven’t seen the movie, only a short trailer, so I can’t judge on the result and that may or may not be an insult to the talent of our Chinese duo. My only point was to state that the fact of them being in that movie (and not japanese actresses) is a formidable confirmation of the feats and achievements of the Chinese cinema in the past two and a half decades in front of the world’s eyes.

December 9, 2005 @ 3:53 pm | Comment

i think the director said in an interview that he was not impressed by the japanese actresses auditioned for the role, while ZZY did it very well.

plus what 88s said.

have you see the movie
“Hostel Six Happiness”?

most Chinese were played by Caucasians.

in other movies we have cantonese speaking in the north of China — in the old time it is easier to find cantonese speakers in Chinatowns…

December 9, 2005 @ 5:35 pm | Comment

the movie has been more or less panned as schlock by the New York times, which isn’t actually overly critical of movies, I find. they say it has nice costumes.

Oh well. What do you expect from a hollywood adaptation of a book written by a western man about japanese women? I think someone has already said this. I’ll be quiet now.

December 10, 2005 @ 11:38 am | Comment

For someone who couldnt really figure out if he was looking at a Japanese or a Chinese chick, even if his life depended on it, may I ask how do you differentiate based on just looks? (most east asians look the same to me)

December 20, 2005 @ 2:45 am | Comment

The pressence of Chinese actresses was horrifying in this film not because they were Chinese but because they were allowed to play these rolls without truly encapturing Japanese culture. The Japanese language is intricately tied to its culture, and the inability for the Chinese actresses to identify and capture true Japanese emotion was upsetting and makes sense that both Japanese and Chinese communities were upset from this film. Japanese and Chinese cultures are inherently different, and it is a struggle for many Asian communities in the States to gain recognization and respect for their differse cultures, and the fact that the first Blockbuster hit to ever feature an entirely Asian cast suggests for all Asians to be regarded in the same boat and that deems them to be the same or interchangable is terrible. I am Ivy-league educated and have spent time studying and working in both Japan and China (and speak Japanese and Mandarin Chinese), and was horrified by this film and what ir represents.

December 21, 2005 @ 9:41 pm | Comment

“Zhang Ziyi shouldn’t be criticized for playing a Japanese if she looks the part and does a good job acting.”

But she doesn’t even look Japanese. She has a very Han Chinese face.

December 31, 2005 @ 12:31 pm | Comment

Stop all your stupid shit whining. All I know was that all those actresses and actors were pretty damn good in the movie. So, those Japs should get a fucking lives. fuck!

December 31, 2005 @ 9:33 pm | Comment

I will agree that the problem must run deeper than the movie itself. The book is originally in English, so it makes some sense that the film is also primarily in English. Being so, it would be incredibly difficult to find excellent Japanese actressess with good english. They are very rare, and simply aren’t to be found. Not that the english in the film was very good to begin with, but I daresay it’s better than what it would have been with Japanese actressess.

The real problem everyone has lies with the book and how it represents a culture written by an outsider. So let’s leave the actors alone and focus on where the real problem is.

January 9, 2006 @ 11:50 pm | Comment

i have a cousin with (no asian relations) who gets mistaken for a chinese person all the time. my point is that there are exceptions in every culture and everyone is different so the fact that the chinese actresses dont look exactly japanese doesnt really mean much.

August 6, 2006 @ 8:18 am | Comment

Very cool and surreal image of Burt Kwouk is located at Pogus Caesar / OOM Gallery site, features Burt with what appears to be dolphins flying past his head.

Location: Photomontage section of OOM Gallery

October 5, 2006 @ 11:38 pm | Comment

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